Son of Sam, Service-Connected Entitlements, and Disabled Veteran Prisoners

49 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2017 Last revised: 8 Feb 2019

See all articles by Jennifer D. Oliva

Jennifer D. Oliva

West Virginia University College of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2017


American veterans have been over-represented in the United States carceral system since at least the Vietnam War era. Prior to 1980, veterans who were wounded in the line of duty were entitled to hard-earned, service-connected disability benefits regardless of post-service involvement in the civilian criminal justice system. In 1979, the American media began running sensationalized stories detailing alleged abuse of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program by notorious prisoners, including New York “Son of Sam” mass murderer, David Berkowitz. In response to the outcry over these well-publicized accounts of prisoner SSDI abuse, Congress enacted a law, 38 U.S.C. § 5313, that stripped certain veteran prisoners of their service-connected disability benefits.

This Article argues that the federal law that strips disabled, justice-involved veterans of their service-connected benefits as the result of non-service-connected misconduct should be repealed. Section 5313 is unjust, unwarranted, and unproductive, for at least five reasons. First, Congress enacted the statute to realize federal cost savings at the expense of a politically and socially vulnerable population: disabled, justice-involved veterans. Second, the statute is grounded in faulty logic and a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation program. Third, Congress stripped disabled, justice-involved veterans of their service-connected disability benefits largely as a result of its erroneous conflation of VA disability compensation and SSDI benefits. Fourth, Section 5313 fails to take into account the evidence-based nexus between military service trauma and post-service mental health issues and related criminal behavior. Finally, revoking service-connected disability benefits impedes justice-involved veteran rehabilitation, reentry, and readjustment.

Keywords: Veterans; Veterans Benefits; Disability; Disability Benefits; SSDI; Prisoners

Suggested Citation

Oliva, Jennifer, Son of Sam, Service-Connected Entitlements, and Disabled Veteran Prisoners (August 1, 2017). 25 George Mason Law Review 301 (2018). Available at SSRN: or

Jennifer Oliva (Contact Author)

West Virginia University College of Law ( email )

101 Law School Drive
Morgantown, WV West Virginia 26506
United States


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