The Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) constitutes an admittedly different approach from the status quo, but one that is distilled from hard-won lessons, learned on the front lines of Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) across Minnesota and the rest of the country over the past decade. In offering veterans charged with a wide range of offenses a path to avoid a criminal conviction, criminal charges become invaluable intervention opportunities.
Below are excerpts from our training materials, which are covered more in depth in our live presentations, where we will take you step by step through the eligibility and plea, and then post-plea and disposition.
Mechanics of the VRJA
The VRJA effectively addresses four critical issues identified in our survey of the Nation’s VTCs:
The VRJA is landmark legislation that is the product of cooperative work by prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, social workers, and the State and Federal Departments of Veterans Affairs. It will serve as a national model for other states seeking to restore justice-involved veterans to the community of law-abiding citizens.
To be eligible under the VRJA, a veteran must demonstrate a clear and convincing nexus between their military service and their criminal offense. When the veteran asks to be sentenced under the VRJA, they must release the records of their service and/or a professional evaluation supporting the nexus between their service and the offense under Subd. 2(b). Using this record, the Court determines if the veteran is eligible. Subdivision 2(c) states,
6 (c) Based on the record, the court shall determine, by clear and convincing evidence, whether the defendant suffers from an applicable condition, whether that condition stems from service in the United States military, and whether the offense was committed as a result of the applicable condition. Within 15 days of the court's findings, either party may file a challenge to the findings and demand a hearing on the defendant's eligibility under this section.
An “applicable condition” is defined under Subd. 1(1) as “sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or a mental health condition.” The nexus requirement is intentionally broad, and does not explicitly require combat exposure, recognizing that military service can negatively impact veterans in a variety of ways, including military sexual trauma, training accidents, and exposure to the horrors of war away from the front lines (i.e. medical personnel caring for the injured, and mortuary personnel caring for the dead).
The VRJA gives the judge, rather than the prosecutor, the responsibility for determining eligibility. This approach provides more continuity and political insulation in the decision-making process. The prosecutor still has a voice and can contest eligibility in a public hearing, and at the end of the probation period can again object to the veteran receiving the benefit of the VRJA if they believe the veteran has not held up their end of the bargain or continues to pose a threat to public safety, but the judge is the final decision maker on both counts.
Putting this decision-making power into the hands of the judge better insulates the prosecutor – and the process – from public pressure. On a more philosophical level, moving this traditional prosecutorial authority to the judicial branch recognizes the unique responsibility of the government – in sending its citizens to war – to ensure that the predictable side effects of war on those who served are effectively addressed, independent of shifting public sentiments.
The legal benefit of a “shall” stay of adjudication for offenses up to and including severity level 7 offenses is so great that the drafters of the VRJA agreed there had to be some assurance that the veteran was truly rehabilitated and that the harm of their offense was at least part of the consideration in whether the charges would be dismissed. This guards against the veteran that does not fully commit to treatment and simply checks the boxes of probationary treatment without investing sufficiently to actually gain the benefit of the treatment.
It also motivates the veteran to prove to the court that the positive changes are sincere and permanent, so the veteran is no longer a public safety risk. This allows the court to use this end of supervision procedure as leverage to gain enthusiastic compliance with probationary treatment and other rehabilitative efforts throughout supervision by reminding the veteran the dismissal is only available with proven rehabilitation. Finally, it gives a voice to the victim and the state to highlight the harm caused by the offense.
The most significant concern addressed by the VRJA is what we call the “disposition issue”: What legal benefit is a veteran offered in exchange for waiving their constitutional right to a trial, submitting to more intensive supervision, and confronting their demons in challenging treatment programs?
The VRJA provides eligible veterans with the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction, recognizing that this path to redemption vastly increases the odds that a veterans will voluntarily submit to the increased demands of a VTC, will complete the required treatment programming, and will successfully reintegrate into their community. This powerful legal incentive helps overcome many of the barriers that otherwise prevent veterans from participating in VTCs and from reintegrating back into their communities. Many veterans, emerging from the military’s warrior culture, are in denial
The PDF and PowerPoint files downloadable here are samples of what will be available in our live presentations, where we fully explain the process using a step-by-step flow chart from the details of eligibility up to the plea, and then the post-plea and disposition steps in the process.
VDP Co-founder Brock Hunter