ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has pledged to support efforts aimed at improving the treatment of veterans within the state's criminal justice system.
Walz, an Army veteran, told advocates Tuesday that he supports their proposed legislation that would create a statewide restorative justice program for veterans who are charged with certain crimes. The measure being proposed by the nonprofit Veterans Defense Project could be introduced in the Legislature this month.
Minnesota became one of the first states in 2008 to set up veterans courts, allowing judges to consider alternative treatment options for veterans who are charged with crimes that may have been committed because of military service-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. The state now has roughly 12 specialty treatment courts that allow some veteran offenders to avoid convictions if they go through treatment, said Brock Hunter, president of the Veterans Defense Project.
Those courts, however, only serve a fraction of the state's counties and there are disparities in how cases are resolved, Hunter said. It has led the Minnesota public defender's office to pull its attorneys from participating in the courts, he said.
"In some veterans courts, the veterans were given an opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction if they did everything expected of them," Hunter said. "And in other counties, they could do everything expected and they still walked away with a criminal conviction that seriously impaired their ability to fully reintegrate back into their communities."
The legislation is proposing a model where veteran offenders enter a plea but can have charges dismissed upon completing the terms of their probation.
The proposal would allow defendants in Minnesota counties without veterans courts to get the same kinds of services available elsewhere, said Pete Orput, a Washington County attorney.
The county has had 40 people go through the veterans court and all have remained crime-free, Orput said.
"It's a path to redemption, that's what I focus on," he said. "And you don't get redeemed if you walk out of court with a felony."