House Hearing: Veterans have earned these benefits

ST. PAUL — Lee Ulferts of Brooklyn Park is a past Department of Minnesota commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a member of American Legion Champlin Post 600 and the past chairman of the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force.

But he was a Marine in 1969, when he was in the Vietnam War. He got married a year and a half after returning.

He testified before the Minnesota House Veterans Affairs Committee on July 30 for an online hearing about the Veterans Restorative Justice Act.

He told the lawmakers, attorneys and veterans in attendance that he had typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled with nighttime problems and all kinds of issues of anger most of his life.

Ulferts found alcohol was a numbing agent. He ended up with drunken driving citations and sought relief, but “I just didn’t know where to go or what to do.”

So he kept drinking. In 2004, he was sentenced to a local treatment program.

“Honestly, the treatment program I went through with all of the others was nothing more than, in my words, a joke,” Ulferts said. “Before finishing I couldn’t wait to have a margarita when I was done.”

As a result, he didn’t place much faith in treatment programs.

In 2012, he was in a minor traffic crash and police arrived. He blew a 0.21 blood-alcohol content on a breath test. He went through the courts and, with his past, he realized he was probably headed for some hard time. He petitioned to be transferred to a veterans court, thinking he could get an easier sentence.

“I soon found out first day I was there it was not going to be done my way,” Ulferts said. “It was going to be done their way, but they were there to help.”

He was assigned a probation officer, a judge and a VA counselor. He said the most important thing was the involvement of a VA treatment program.

“At that time, I was with other veterans, and for the first time in almost 50 years I found some peace and some relief. I found how to deal with my problems,” he said. “Since that time, I am happy to say I am eight years sober. I graduated after one year from veterans court. And without that help, I can assure you, I would not be here today. My problems were so great I didn’t care so much about living anymore.”

He said he is happy, his marriage is restored and he is enjoying life.

“Minnesota has a long history of helping those who need help. Certainly, we should be able to reach out to those veterans who are crying for help but don’t know where to go.”

Clearing up misinformation

State Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, chairman of the committee and a Legion member, held the hearing in an effort to clarify questions on the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. The bill had failed to pass in the July special session and in the 2019 regular session, where it had reached conference committee before dying.

Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Legislative Director Ben Johnson, a Legion member, said the bill has the full support of Gov. Tim Walz, the MDVA and veterans organizations. He said it provides no better demonstration of the governor’s “One Minnesota” theme.

“It allows a veteran in Roseau to be treated the same as a veteran in Roseville,” Johnson said.

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act ensures the veterans treatment courts in the state operate the same way. It does not install 87 veterans courts, Johnson noted. It lets counties choose whether to set them up, and the law provides a unified system when they do, rather than a patchwork.

What’s more, the measure allows veterans facing low-level crimes tied to trauma from their time in service to seek out a veterans court, even if their county does not have one, he said.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput was in the violent crimes division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office prior to 2011. In the mid-2000s, he witnessed an uptick of returning combat veterans dealing with mental health wounds, he said.

He learned Erie County in New York (where Buffalo is) set up a veterans court. He spoke with prosecutors there, then began working with Minneapolis lawyer Brock Hunter and others, and they put together a pilot program in Hennepin County in 2010.

When he went to Washington County, he spoke with leaders about setting one up there, too, and they did.
Since then, he and others have done outreach. A statute, he said, provides a uniform system so no veterans are left behind.

“There is so much misinformation, it is frustrating for me,” Orput testified.

He said Washington County has had significant savings and helped a lot of vets. He wants his public to be safe and called for bipartisan support of the measure.

He noted the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association is in full support of the bill.

It must be done right

State Public Defender Bill Ward, who has led the Minnesota Board of Public Defense for six years, said the Hennepin County veterans court was a success, but, after Orput left, it became unsuccessful with time, and he became discouraged with the disparate ways veterans courts were implemented statewide. His office pulled out.

Basically, counties had them to have them, but they weren’t meeting the needs of the vets, he said.

“It wasn’t giving them that second chance, which is why I believe veterans courts should have been established in the first place,” Ward said. “Not only because of the work they have done for the country but the sacrifices they made.”

He was reluctant to be involved in being on a committee to draft the language of Veterans Restorative Justice Act, too, but he was glad he did. It took 18 months.

“Ultimately, we hammered out what I firmly believe is an incredibly fair and just bill that should be supported by all of you,” Ward told the lawmakers.

He said the measure allows the courts, no matter where a veteran is charged, to wonder: Why are you here?

He said the justice system’s goal is to prevent people from coming into the justice system in the first place. With veterans, he noted, it is a different case, because the incident is stemming from their service.

The bill, he said, is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.

“Please understand this is not an easy task. Many of those people, due to their circumstances, I like to say, are set up for failure, so in order to succeed, individuals who are sentenced under this bill have to accomplish a lot,” Ward said.

National resolutions

VFW Department of Minnesota Legislative Officer Tommy Johnson, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force, which includes The American Legion, noted veterans treatment courts are national priorities for the VFW, Legion and other veterans organizations in the CTF.

The American Legion National Executive Committee passed a resolution in favor of veterans courts in 2016.

Johnson, a Legion member of Bloomington Post 550, noted that a federal veterans court measure had passed Congress, and it was expected to be signed by President Donald Trump (he signed it Aug. 8). It would provide technical and financial assistance to counties in rural areas looking to set up veterans courts. He said it is anticipated that, to be eligible, there needs to be a statewide system in place.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, our rural areas might not be able to get the financial assistance they need to set one up,” he said. “The justice a veteran received should not be dependent on a county line.”

What about the money?

Lawmakers on the committee asked questions. What about money? Extra cases for probation officers? Time spent? Domestic violence groups? Court judges?

“Everybody on this committee wants to help our veterans. I want to make sure this is done right,” said state Rep. Matt Grossell of Clearbrook, a veteran and retired sheriff’s deputy.

Orput said he asked for not one nickel in developing the veterans courts in Hennepin and Washington counties.

“With this bill, I don’t think it would require money,” he said. “It requires a mindset that instead of using the same old tools us prosecutors use, which is typically a bucket of hammers, we now drop the adversarial and work toward restoring these vets.”

Orput said the veterans court in Washington County had support from the local domestic assault victims group, because many wives had husbands who needed the right treatment, and the statewide bill still has their support. He noted that in the two years it is been in the Legislature, they have not testified against it.

“The biggest advocates for the veterans are their partners, their spouses. They are the ones saying, ‘I want my old husband back. I want my old boyfriend or girlfriend back, the way they were before they went in the service.”

Ecklund and Ward noted that the Minnesota courts typically do not comment on proposed legislation. Ecklund noted the chief justice has spoken at opening ceremonies for veterans courts in southern Minnesota. Vets courts exist in 27 counties in Minnesota.

Rep. Jeff Brand of St. Peter said that if the chief justice opposed it, she has had two years to make it known.

Ward said probation check-ins for most people happen monthly. For veterans, it would be weekly. Yes, he said, it means increased time for probation officers, but the Minnesota Management and Budget’s fiscal note shows savings of $1.3 million in the first two years and $2.3 million the next two years because the veterans, in large part, do not return to the system.

He said weekly supervision would not be a burden because the vets won’t return.

“This is the right thing to do. This is not an onerous thing,” he said.

If the charge and the situation require a bigger hurdle, Ward said, the probation can be extended to suit.

“We need to get away from this one-size-fits-all mindset,” he said.

Rep. Bob Dettmer of Forest Lake, ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Committee and a Legion member, said it was his seventh term in the Legislature and said passing legislation can take years. He said it is important to maintain relationships and avoid blame.