Veterans Restorative Justice Act fails to pass the House

The 12-foot-high steel statue “Monument to the Living” on the grounds of the Capitol Complex aims to remind lawmakers of their duties to the men and women politicians send to war. Sculpted by veteran Rodger M. Brodin, the veterans of Minnesota dedicated it in 1982, with the words “Why do you forget us?”

Violence-Free Minnesota and legal community favor this bill

By Tim Engstrom

ST. PAUL — Most laws are just a mix of legalese, vague generalities or textbook drivel.
The Veterans Restorative Justice Act, however, has a passage that is quite eloquent: “It is in the interests of justice to restore a defendant who acquired a criminal record due to a mental health condition stemming from service in the United States military to the community of law-abiding citizens.”

Those words most folks agree upon. Arguing over other terms is what undermined this bill from even reaching the floor of the House on Oct. 14. The Senate, on Oct. 12, passed it 67-0 for the third month in a row. The House had passed it in May 2019, but, to be sent to the governor’s desk, they must both pass it in the same session.

The act, if passed, provides pre-adjudication supervision for veterans who experience service-connected trauma, mainly from combat. It has a statewide protocol for veterans courts in Minnesota and gives access to existing veterans courts for service-related defendants facing charges in counties without them.

Instead of giving combat vets a black mark for life, harming their ability to earn income, the judges would have the option to get them back on their feet and paying taxes again, not draining taxes. If completed successfully, the incident is removed from the public record.

The VRJA saves an estimated $1.3 million in the first two years and $2.3 million the next two years, according to the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget.

In August, House Speaker Melissa Hortman had told CTF members from The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars the House would pass it after the bond-rating quiet period ends.

The time ended in late September, and the stage was set for October’s special session. It was House File 9/Senate File 2.

At the urging of Rep. Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake, the minority party put up 15 amendments. House leadership decided to hold off until after the election.

The main push O’Neill had was for one thing: remove violent crimes. She has an education in psychology and marital counseling and was concerned for victims of domestic violence.

Rep. Bob Dettmer of Forest Lake — a Legion member and ranking minority member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee — said she would have dropped all the other amendments if the majority had agreed to the one violent-crimes amendment.

O’Neill, during a House discussion on Oct. 13, said Violence-Free Minnesota opposed the bill. Her statement was incorrect.

Violence-Free Minnesota Director Liz Richards communicated later that day to House members to set the record straight.

The organization would not support removing domestic violence from the bill.

“We have always maintained our support for the diversion program within the act,” she told the Legionnaire. “A criminal system that just puts you in jail and doesn’t address the underlying issues doesn’t help anybody.”

In fact, Violence-Free Minnesota has its own domestic abuse project for veterans, Richards said.

Minnesota County Attorneys Association Executive Director Robert Small said his organization and the State Public Defender’s Office often don’t agree on legislation.

“We aren’t always standing close, but we stand close on this bill,” he said.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, a Marine veteran and Legion member with Bayport Post 491, said the veterans treatment court in his county is successful.

“I have the full support of the female victims,” he said. “I thought this bill was the one thing this time that isn’t political.”

The bill addresses Severity Level 7 crimes and below because, in Minnesota, Level 7 crimes and below are presumed not to go to prison, Orput said. Level 7 and below include some violent crimes. Level 8 and above are “adios,” he said.

Changing this law would imply O’Neill wants to change all the criminal laws, he noted.

He said sending a defendant to veterans treatment court is a more-difficult path for the defendant than regular punishment, but, if the judge, defendant and prosecutor agree, it has proven to get them back on track to being productive, tax-paying citizens.

“Do you want them to go to probation once a month for 10 months or do want them to get even more-stringent programming?” he asked.

“We broke them. We got to fix them. They were not criminals when they went in,” Orput said.

Savings come to the state and counties, in one way, because VA picks up the cost of treatment. VA treatment has them with other vets, while regular court-mandated treatment places people with combat trauma in with non-veterans.

Orput said vet problems do not correlate to the problems non-vets face, so the treatment typically fails. VA treatment, he said, is far better, more targeted and works.

The Legionnaire did offer to interview O’Neill. She issued a statement instead. It is available here.

State Public Defender Bill Ward helped craft the bill’s language and said no judge is forced to send a veteran to veterans court. And once a vet begins the veterans court route, a judge can bring them back to regular court at any time.

Striking language on violence would only prevent getting the veteran to the VA counseling he or she needs, he noted, and could result in repeat offenses.

Ward said the legislation was not written to “get more” for veterans in legal trouble. It was written to be in line with existing statutes and to trust judges. Language in the bill regarding “substantial completion” does mean defendants get off, as O’Neill believes, he said. Ward wrote a statement for the Legionnaire, explaining this. It is available here.

Amending the bill, Ward said, would drastically cut the number of veterans this legislation is aiming to rehabilitate.

Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls — chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the bill’s author in the House and Legion member — said he is not giving up.

“I think we are going to have to tackle it next session and get these answers firmly and finally behind us,” he said.

In the November special session, he plans to bring a state representative with a law background to address legal questions.

“I don’t see how it could pass one body 67-0 and have all these legal organizations behind it and have one person be able to bring it down,” Ecklund said.

He said he is committed to the measure whether it is in special sessions or the 2021 regular session.
American Legion Department of Minnesota Legislative Committee Chairman Robert Hart of Stillwater Post 48 was quoted in a Star-Tribune story on Oct. 16 about the bill failing again: “We see what really happened here: The House minority decided to use it as a means to bash the majority prior to an election. And the House majority failed on its promise to us to pass it because leadership became scared. We expect more from both parties when it comes to taking care of combat veterans dealing with trauma. In the end, both sides look horrible.”

American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota Legislative Committee Chairman Patti Coleman placed a statement on Facebook about it: “The American Legion Auxiliary has faced the combat trauma of our veterans longer than anyone. We know the issue well. We support the Veterans Restorative Justice Act language as is, no amendment.”

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act is a priority of the Minnesota Commander’s Task Force and has the support of the veterans organizations in Minnesota.

Veterans treatment courts also have the support of the National American Legion, which passed a resolution at the National American Legion Convention in 2016 in Cincinnati.

Call to action!

• Are you frustrated that an overwhelming number of Minnesota legal experts and politicians have vetted this bill and supported it, yet it still gets hung up?

• Do you support legislation that saves tax dollars during a recession?

Call your state representatives, regardless of party. Ask for their support. Don’t accept deceitful answers.

The bill was brought up during the special sessions because it deals with criminal justice, and fixing criminal justice for combat vets is on par with other Minnesota criminal justice laws passed this year. Our state’s legal community supports this, and we stand by them.

To quote the end of The American Legion preamble: “To consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”

This law is about getting our combat-weary buddies back on their feet, and Legionnaires have done that for each other all the way back to right after World War I.