By State Public Defender Bill Ward
It is incredibly unfortunate that after two years, there are still such fundamental misconceptions about the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, the policy reasoning behind the legal incentives and sanctions in the VRJA, the bill’s mechanics, and its relation to veterans treatment courts.
Before it ever reached the Legislature, the VRJA was the product of 18 months of negotiations in a working group that included representatives of the state’s primary group of prosecutors at the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, veterans advocates, representatives of the state and federal Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Board of Public Defense.
This group identified the need to address the effects military service has had on many of our returning veterans while recognizing the inability to establish dedicated veterans courts in all 87 counties of Minnesota. There was robust discussion on the inequitable treatment of our veterans — whether a veterans court had been established or not — and how veterans courts themselves differed from one another. A statutory solution was identified as the most equitable and expedient way to treat our returning veterans who are charged with criminal offenses.
Although representatives from the VRJA Workgroup have discussed the workings of the bill on numerous occasions, there continue to be misconceptions.
For example, Rep. Marion O’Neill posits: 1. that the bill takes too severe of offenses, 2. that it does not require the veteran to “complete” treatment, and 3. that it is bad for public safety as it gives the gatekeeping role to judges rather than prosecutors and victims.
It was agreed by the Working Group that the most important thing the VRJA could accomplish is to provide consistent legal incentives to those veterans suffering from the worst service-related conditions to ensure their compliance and substantial completion of treatment such that the Court identifies as necessary to rehabilitate and prevent recidivism.
After lengthy debate, the Working Group was confident that to accomplish this goal the VRJA must include more serious level offenses as those are committed by the veterans with the greatest treatment needs.
However, the allegation must be at a severity level of 7 or below (please note, as per the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, an individual alleged to have committed a severity 7 or below is presumed to be eligible for probation if
s/he has a criminal history score of 2 or below).
The difference with this bill than other actions involving Level 7 or below offenses is the ability to receive a stay of adjudication. It should be remembered that those charged with public safety in the MCAA agreed to this because rehabilitating veterans who possess dangerous skill sets is a more effective way to protect public safety than even the most severe sentence available for these offenses.
Rep. O’Neill opines that the VRJA does not require the veteran to complete treatment despite explanations by both prosecutors and defense attorneys that this is not true.
To be granted a dismissal, Subdivision 2 of the VRJA requires the veteran must show “substantial compliance” with the conditions of probation, that the veteran “successfully participated in court-ordered treatment,” that the veteran does not pose a danger to self or others, and that the veteran is rehabilitated such that the legal incentive discussed above is appropriate.
The court must be satisfied that all these conditions are met to grant the dismissal. The Workgroup agreed upon “substantial compliance” to take into account relapse and other hurdles that one too often faces when entering any treatment program and to avoid either the veteran completing the valuable parts of treatment and without getting a formal certificate of completion or a veteran who gets a certificate of completion without really taking rehabilitation seriously.
The Working Group decided the best way to ensure actual rehabilitation was the goal-oriented examination by the judge rather than a simple checklist.
Finally, Rep. O’Neill continues to raise the point that she believes prosecutors and victims should be able to deny the benefits and responsibilities to veterans under the VRJA. This is bad for public safety and would result in zero improvement in our current system. It is bad for public safety because:
• It will greatly limit the number of court-involved veterans who are induced to complete the difficult rehabilitative steps outlined above.
• It would lead to the same system we have today, with the same problems the VRJA was designed to solve as cited above.
I have worked with the leadership of the MCAA on many matters in my role as state public defender. To suggest that the leadership of the MCAA did not take into consideration the concerns of victims’ rights advocates is ludicrous.
Additionally, Rep. O’Neill is incorrect to suggest that the victim has “no say in the decision” by the judge as to what benefit the veteran receives under the VRJA. Subdivision 2(b) clearly states the judge should consider “the level of harm to the community or victim” after a hearing that includes the victim.
While Rep. O’Neill states that proponents of the bill have likened it to veterans courts, the opposite is true from this writer. Currently, individual County Attorney’s Offices decide if they are willing to have a dedicated Veterans Court in their county, the rules by which veterans would be allowed to participate, and what legal benefit they will receive if s/he participates.
Most counties have not established veterans courts and the ones that exist all have disparate practices that leads to more failure than success. The disparate practice that currently exists is concerning to me — it should concern all our citizens — and that is why I chose to participate as part of the workgroup. It should not matter, as a due process consideration, where a crime was alleged to have been committed. Whether in Isanti, International Falls or Inver Grove Heights, all of our veterans should be treated fairly and equitably in the criminal court system.
Those who oppose the bill espouse that they are in support of the needs of our veterans but assert that that the bill “goes too far.” The reality is that our veterans are currently in the criminal court system. As a society we need to address the underlying reasons as to why one of our veterans found him/herself in the system.
This bill provides for a consistent, fair and effective approach to address their underlying concerns, provide rehabilitative services and support without having to establish 87 veterans courts throughout the state.
Our veterans sacrificed for us. The least we can do is provide the support they need when they find themselves in dire straights as a result of their service on behalf of our country.
Bill Ward is the state public defender. He wrote this to clarify misinformation about the VRJA.