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Veterans Restorative Justice Act clears first hurdle

Over Zoom video conferencing, Army veteran Tony Miller testifies on Jan. 21 before the Minnesota Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee.

Senate committee on veterans hears testimony, passes measure

ST. PAUL — The Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee on Jan. 21 approved the Veterans Restorative Justice Act and forwarded it to the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain is the author of Senate File 116. He is a Legion member with Lino Lakes Post 566. Also on Thursday, the committee added Sen. Steve Cwodzinksi of Eden Prairie as an author. That means it has Senate support from both political parties.

“We are here to get this thing done finally,” Chamberlain said.

Roger Chamberlain

The Senate passed the bill three times in three special legislative sessions in 2020. Each time, the vote was 67-0. However, despite promises from House leaders to pass it, the bill faced opposition in the House, where some lawmakers proposed a heap of amendments worded in ways to scare proponents from voting over them. It worked. The bill never made it to the House floor for a vote.

Proponents of the bill hope the 2021 regular session will be the time the bill gets passed and the job gets done. They hope the opponents, whose leader is Rep. Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake, realize the good this does for trauma-impacted veterans, their spouses and their families.

The measure would make veterans treatment courts in Minnesota consistent across the board. There are eight veterans courts presently serving 25 counties. It also would provide defendants in counties without veterans treatment courts access to places with them, if a judge approves.

It does not set up the courts. It does not spend money. It does save $1.3 million in the first two years and $2.3 million the next two years, according to a state fiscal note.

Testimony

The Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee on Jan. 21 heard testimony from Tony Miller, a veteran of Army deployments in 2006, 2007 and 2008 with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Steve Cwodzinski

In 2015, he appeared before a veterans court on a marijuana charge at the lowest felony level for substances.

He had a choice: prison for three years or agree to take veterans court.

He took veterans court, which forced him to get counseling with the VA.

“I got the counseling I desperately needed at that time in my life,” Miller told the senators.

He cleaned up his life and got a bachelor’s degree. Now he is seeking a master’s degree at St. Thomas University.

He has testified before and hopes this year is the year.

“You guys have to really get together and get this thing passed,” Miller said.

At the start of the second deployment to the Mideast, soldiers were calling federal senators and representatives, angry about going again.

The command sergeant major told his troops the calls do no good.

“These are the guys sending you over. They are not going to stop the deployment.”

Since the politicians are the ones who send troops to war, they need to be the ones who help veterans when they integrate into the civilian world, Miller said. He quickly ran through a list of anecdotes of struggling veterans he knows.

“It is getting really bad out here,” Miller said.

Assistant Washington County Attorney Tom Frenette, a Marine veteran who served two times in Iraq, spoke about his experience and about the veterans court in Washington County.

“It was difficult to find a job during the recession. I was applying for jobs well below what I was capable of doing,” he said.

The combat infantry isn’t given a lot of coping mechanisms after serving in war, Frenette said. He chose alcohol and sitting in front of a television.

“I think a lot of veterans share that. There’s a feeling that you are lost,” said.

They experience a fog when returning from combat, then another fog when getting out of the military and entering civilian life, he said. With no treatment, the fog lasts.

They perform a very important mission on behalf of the country, then they come back and wash dishes. They are lost, frustrated, confused, he said. A common result is substance abuse, which brings them eventually before a judge.

In the Washington County veterans court, Frenette said he has seen a lot of success stories and not many failures.

“It takes someone who commits a crime and gets them the resources they need. It’s not a free pass,” he said, noting it happens through a stay of adjudication. “The veteran has to take responsibility upfront.”

The bill works from Level 7-and-lower crimes, the presumed probation level, and it funnels the veterans to resources already in place at the VA. The crimes include domestic abuse, but it has the support of Violence-Free Minnesota because, without proper treatment, the abuse cycle often continues.

Prison doesn’t solve the problem. Veterans courts let judges pinpoint the catalyst of the problem, Frenette said.

“We’ve got to stop that cycle,” he said.

Marine veteran Todd Kemery, chairman of the Minnesota Commander’s Task Force and president of the Minnesota Paralyzed Veterans of America, testified that the CTF has worked at educating lawmakers about the bill and fending off misinformation.

“We need to get this thing done,” Kemery said.

The nine CTF members include The American Legion.

He noted how the defendant charged with the crime of toppling a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota Capitol grounds was given a restorative sentence. Kemery called for the same treatment for veterans who struggle with unseen war wounds.

Ben Johnson, legislative director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, served in the Navy for six years and went on three deployments.

He said the bill provides a consistent application of justice for trauma-impacted veterans across Minnesota. He said many Greater Minnesota veterans do not have the same access to veterans courts that metro veterans have.

Johnson said he was at the Landmark Center on Jan. 19 two years ago, where many senators from both parties stood with Gov. Tim Walz and agreed this bill needed to be passed.

When people tell Johnson “thank you for your service,” he appreciates it but knows “words are cheap.”

“This is an opportunity to show action,” he told the senators.

Tommy Johnson, legislative officer for the Jewish War Veterans, said the Hells Angels motorcycle gang was founded by disaffected World War II veterans. He said disaffected portions of society can be radicalized. Getting them to treatment avoids this.

“This is a public safety issue,” he said.

The American Legion has been involved by providing talking points, a legislative flier and other useful documents.

Next steps

Advocates had expected the House would file the bill on Jan. 25, but that didn’t happen.

As of press time on Jan. 26, the House had not filed its version of the bill.

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