On 30 June, 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) as part of the Omnibus State Government Policy and Finance bill.
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.
Throughout the history of warfare, veterans have brought societies’ wars home with them. While the vast majority of veterans return as incredibly valuable assets to their communities, some bring their wars home through criminality. Modern, Western societies have failed by approaching these crimes punitively rather than recognizing the crime as a product of war for which we all share responsibility. Until now. Fighting the longest war in American history with repeated deployments, America’s veterans are entering the criminal justice system due solely to their PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and related substance abuse conditions. They pose a unique public safety risk if their trauma goes untreated and they are not properly reintegrated into their communities.
The rise and growth of Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) and veteran sentencing statutes across the country has been a welcome response to this crisis and they hold the promise to help seize this opportunity for reintegration. Unfortunately, VTCs are still relatively few in number, and they lack consistent protocols and practices, leading to disparate outcomes and many missed opportunities to bring justice-involved veterans the rest of the way home.
What does VRJA do?
● Provides a specialized sentencing structure for Veterans who are found to have committed criminal offenses as a result of a service-related condition. They are given the opportunity to avoid jail time and a criminal conviction if they complete all recommended treatment and abide by other conditions ordered by the court. “We broke them in our wars, we have an obligation to fix them rather than punish them.” Pete Orput – Washington County Attorney.
● Provides uniformity to Minnesota’s existing Veterans Treatment Courts, each of which currently uses different models. “The Justice a Veteran Receives should not depend on which side of a county line they live on.” – Tommy Johnson, Veterans Advocate.
● Provides a structure for jurisdictions that do not have Veterans Treatment Courts to follow in individual Veteran cases.
● The judge determines eligibility. A Veteran who wants the benefit of the VRJA must release records to the judge to show the veteran’s offense is due to service-related trauma. Once a veteran is deemed eligible for the VRJA, what happens next?
● Eligible Veterans enter a guilty plea, but that plea is not accepted and the conviction is stayed. The Court places the Veteran on probation with conditions for supervision including treatment, education, and rehabilitation tailored to the Veteran’s needs.
● The Court, the treatment program, the county veterans service officers, probation agents, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs collaborate to maximize services and benefits to the Veteran and carefully monitor the Veteran’s performance.
● If the Veteran violates the conditions of probation, the Court may elect to convict the Veteran of their crime and/or sentence them to jail. At the end of the probationary period a hearing is held to determine whether the Veteran has met the Court’s expectations.
● At that hearing, the Court hears from the Veteran, the prosecution, probation, and any victims to evaluate the veteran’s rehabilitation against the harm of the offense.
● The Veteran must demonstrate to the Court that the conditions of probation have been met, that the veteran has benefited from the treatment and services provided and is no longer a danger to the community. If the terms of probation have been met, charges are dismissed.
The VRJA also saves money. The official fiscal note prepared for the Minnesota Legislature estimates savings of over $1 million dollars per year.
“The 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 VTCs across Minnesota and the rest of the country. In offering justice-involved veterans a path to avoid a criminal conviction, a criminal charge becomes an invaluable intervention opportunity. It powerfully incentivizes veterans to take responsibility for their actions, to complete challenging treatment programs, to bridge the divide they feel between themselves and society, to restore their honor and, once again, become an asset to their communities. In doing so, it also best protects public safety in the short and long term.”
- Brock Hunter, Co-Founder of the Veterans Defense Project
The VRJA has earned the support of the following criminal justice and veterans policy stakeholders:
Minnesota County Attorneys Association (MCAA)
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
Minnesota State Board of Public Defenders
The American Legion
Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL)
Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
Minnesota Social Service Association
Paralyzed Veterans of America
Violence Free Minnesota
American Veterans Association (AMVETS)
Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)
Jewish War Veterans of the United States
Military Order of the Purple Heart
Marine Corps League