One very bad day in a good man's life, a veteran grabbed a knife and tried to goad Ramsey County sheriff's deputies into ending his pain.

His story could have ended in a jail cell or in a grave.

But Ramsey County sometimes offers veterans facing jail time an alternative: Get treatment, get therapy, get weekly drug tests, get working on the issues that landed you in trouble in the first place.

"I am the luckiest guy. The most fortunate guy," said Jeff, a retired Army major; a husband and father; and a graduate of Ramsey County's veterans treatment court.

He came into the program bruised by the less-lethal rounds the deputies used to subdue him, wracked by pain from the wear and tear of 24 years of military service, and haunted by post-traumatic stress, nightmares and undiagnosed mental illness.

"I would not have made it," said Jeff, who now volunteers as a mentor to other veterans in the program. He asked that his full name not be used. "They saved my life."

There are veterans in pain in every county in Minnesota. Not every county has the resources to set up a veterans courts of its own.

The Minnesota Legislature could change that.

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act would expand the veterans court program to the whole state, offering a second chance to veterans who qualify and who are willing to put in the work.

The bill passed the Minnesota Senate unanimously last year.

This year, it passed the House.

They just can't seem to pass it into law.

The idea has the support of Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and public defenders, veterans' groups and victims' rights advocates.

But a ferocious debate over who should qualify for that second chance sank the bill in 2020 and could deadlock it again this year.

After early bipartisan support for the legislation last year, a group of lawmakers balked, concerned that a diversion program could act as a get-out-of-jail-free card for violent offenders and domestic abusers.

This year, the Republican-led Senate passed one version of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. The DFL-led House passed another. The differences between the bills would have to be hammered out by the conference committee rushing to pass a raft of veterans and military affairs bills through the Legislature before the session ends in a few weeks.

Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who sponsored the Senate version, pushed for changes that would exclude more violent offenders and give victims and prosecutors more discretion over who gets a second chance.

"Veterans who come back and have experienced things through their service that most of us, we can't even fathom … we need to offer them services to help," Rarick said. "I think this is one step in being able to help."

There are 16 county veterans courts in a state with 87 counties. Ramsey County's has been operating for nearly a decade.

"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Donn Lindstrom, a Navy veteran who coordinates the mentor program at the Ramsey County veterans court.

Not every veteran makes the most of this second chance. Some wash out and end up serving significant prison time. But around 90% make it through the program and fewer than 1% reoffend.

"Veteran treatment courts save lives," he said. "Twenty-two veterans a day die by suicide [nationally]. So the more that we can help them, the better off the community as a whole is going to be."

Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, sponsored the Veterans Restorative Justice bill in the House this year.

"This isn't just something nice that we're doing for veterans," she said. "When people engage in the rehabilitative path, they are having multiple meetings per week, they are being forced to confront their past, they are being forced to seek the treatment they need. It is a much harder path" than just sitting in a jail cell.

Instead of sitting in a jail cell, Jeff spent time in an inpatient treatment program, followed by weekly court appearances, drug tests, counseling sessions and peer support meetings. But he came out the other side feeling better than he had in years.

Watching the bill go nowhere last year was hard on him.

Now he worries that passing the Senate version might actually be worse than doing nothing.

The violent offenders the Senate bill would disqualify, he said, would include someone who had threatened sheriff's deputies with a weapon. Someone like him.

"I'm a firm believer in 'no veteran left behind,' " he wrote in a recent letter to members of the American Legion. "Make no mistake; if the Senate VRJA version passes ... veterans — just like me — will be left behind." • 612-673-4008

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