Serving as a local policeman and later as a county sheriff, James Plousis said it always saddened him to see a veteran in the county jail. “He didn’t get the helping hand,” Plousis said. “I saw it firsthand. These guys don’t really belong in jail. There’s got to be a better way.”
As chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board, Plousis has created several initiatives – some working with The American Legion Department of New Jersey – to limit the number of veterans finding themselves incarcerated or on the way to becoming so.
A former U.S. marshal, Plousis was named parole board chairman in August of 2010. After realizing there was a lack of programs within his agency specific tailored to the needs of veterans, he created his multi-faceted Veterans Offender Reentry Initiative
“It’s amplified now with our (veterans) coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq,” Plousis said of the need to develop a program for veterans. “The multiple deployments, we all know, add mental stress on these guy and gals. It was the right thing to do, and it was a positive thing.”
Plousis said coming from a local law enforcement background and seeing veterans in the penal system allowed him to look at the situation at the state level from a unique perspective.
“ I saw there was nothing specific for veterans to capture who was a veteran in the system, and were we making sure that we were helping them get the benefits that they were awarded,” Plousis said. “I did some homework, and I found out at the county jail level nobody was tracking who was a veteran there. We weren’t tracking who was a veteran at (Department of Corrections).”
A member of the Sons of The American Legion Squadron 524 in Ocean City, N.J., Plousis knew the Legion had contacts and posts in communities throughout the state. “My thought was, ‘If I partner with The American Legion, I’ll have people everywhere that can help the guys when they get out (of jail).’”
Then-American Legion Department of New Jersey Commander Bob Looby was in Trenton at the department headquarters when Plousis reached out to the Legion in December of 2010.
“He engaged us right away, and the immediate answer was ‘yes, we’re going to work with you,’” Looby said. “And we got a resounding endorsement (from the department) for a formal partnership. We engaged posts right away to get parolees to volunteer so they can say on their résumé that they’ve been doing work for the community. We knew we were going to help vets. It was that simple.”
The idea, Plousis said, was to refer parolees to a local Legion post “and maybe they could get a mentor there. They could get help with housing, help with employment. Part of the agreement was they’d give them free membership the first year.”
That led to the State Parole Board having a presence at Department of New Jersey hiring fairs for veterans, spouses and transitioning servicemembers. “When we go to these events it’s two-fold,” Plousis said. “We are there trying to recruit officers and staff for us. But we’re also there looking for employers that will hire parolee veterans.”
Another component, Plousis said, is that there was no statewide connection in dealing with veterans homelessness. So in each of the past five years the State Parole Board has sponsored a Housing Our Hero event. Homeless providers are invited to attend the event to network and get “on the same page,” Plousis said. “We link in the county jail, so if a vet is getting out of the county jail and he’s got nowhere to go, the jail knows (and) they can refer him (to a housing provider).”
Housing providers that wouldn’t take parolees or people currently on probation now take them because Plousis’ department reached out to them. Plousis also brought in a post-traumatic stress disorder expert to share information with more than 100 law enforcement staff about the condition and how to deal with it. His agency was involved with getting legislation passed that provides a veteran identifier on driver’s licenses.
Plousis established a Veteran Offender Reentry Hotline (609-777-0181) and email address (firstname.lastname@example.org); both – along with the web address and phone number for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs – are featured on posters provided to law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities throughout the state. When a veteran is booked into jail, they are asked what services they need.
“We get a couple hundred referrals a year through the website, as well as the phone,” Plousis said. “Some are criminal justice-related. Some are questions: ‘Where can I get my DD-214?’ We’ve been trying to fill in that gap there.”
And a pilot program has been established in Gloucester County, N.J., with the prosecutor’s office that Plousis feels confident will eventually be emulated throughout the state. A veteran detective’s position has been created; that person, an Afghanistan veteran, is immediately contacted if a veteran is arrested and before charges are filed. If applicable, the detective looks into what steps can be taken to get the veteran mental health services.
“This way, prior to arrest, we can divert them out,” Plousis. “This is a novel in that we’re trying to get them at the front end.”
Though veterans were the target of the original initiatives, Plousis said their benefits have reached further. “It’s benefited all parolees, because doors were opened,” he said. “People wouldn’t want to hire somebody who’s been in trouble (and) they’ve hired a veteran parolee, see that he did a good job and (then) said, ‘I’ll take other ones as well.’”
Plousis said having The American Legion involved has been critical to his program’s success. “I always say that (Legion posts) are really pillars … in all the cities and towns they’re at in New Jersey,” he said. “What I love about The American Legion is they never say no. They’ve hosted everything we’ve ever wanted them to. They won’t turn us down.”