A bill about second chances gets its last chance at the Minnesota Legislature on Monday.

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act would steer veterans — struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress and scars from wars that started when some of them were children — into treatment and counseling instead of prison.

It was one of those rare bipartisan bright spots on the legislative calendar. Veterans groups supported it, and so did victims' rights advocates. It had the support of prosecutors and public defenders, Republicans and Democrats.

If it is going to become law this year, it has to happen on Monday, during the seventh and likely final special session of the year.

But it won't. Not in this divided Legislature in this divisive year.

"It's sordid, dirty politics," said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput. "I've been pushing this boulder up the hill all year. You'd think this would have unanimous support from everybody."

Orput combined his experience as a veteran and the county's top prosecutor to set up a diversion program for troubled veterans.

There was one young man who spent his days home after deployment in the basement, staring at the television.

When his wife came down to ask him to turn it off, he grabbed his assault-style rifle and shot the TV set.

"[He was] obviously tipping over, full of PTSD and rage," Orput said. "We got him in the program. He worked for two years. Now he wants to come back and volunteer as a mentor. I've got story after story after story like that."

Washington is one of 16 Minnesota counties with veterans courts. The bill running out the clock in St. Paul could have expanded the program statewide.

In Washington County, eligible veterans are assessed and diagnosed at a Veterans Affairs clinic, then offered a choice.

"You want to go over there and grind the time sitting in jail, playing Monopoly? Or do you want the opportunity to change your life?" Orput said.

The choice isn't as easy it sounds. Shooting a television set might get you probation or a short stay in a cell. Therapy and treatment means years of hard work.

"I get it. If you open that chest [in therapy], the dragons might come out real big," Orput said. "But they won't be bigger than you."

Opening up, getting help, can change your life, veterans testified during hearings at the Capitol. There was a veteran in so much pain, and on so many painkillers, that he called the cops and tried to goad them into shooting him. There was veteran who got a job as a bouncer just so he had an excuse to hit somebody.

Lawmakers had a chance to help those veterans and so many others this year.

"I'm still holding out hope, but not a lot," said state Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, a veteran and sponsor of the measure that everybody seems to like but nobody seems able to pass. "The climate is just getting so ugly."

After multiple tries, the bill sailed unanimously through the Republican-controlled Senate during the October special session, then stalled out in the House.

"It is unthinkable to me that we would punish a veteran with jail time when they commit a low-level crime due to illnesses they developed during the course of their service," Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said in a statement at the time — months after the Senate rejected the same bill during the July special session. "These soldiers fulfilled their promise to us; now we have to keep our promise to them."

Again and again, in regular session and special session, the bill collapsed like a toddler's Jenga tower.

Counties weary of waiting for the Legislature can set up their own veteran courts. Straightforward enough if you're Hennepin County. Less easy in Koochiching County, population 12,000.

"Could my county afford to do this on its own? Probably not," said Ecklund, a former Koochiching County commissioner. "They haven't been able to afford their own drug and alcohol court. They formed a joint effort with Lake of the Woods."

Right now, it would be holiday miracle enough if the Legislature managed to pass a pandemic relief package during this last-chance special session. Businesses are closing, hospital beds are filling and Minnesotans desperately need a lifeline from their lawmakers.

Ecklund plans to reintroduce his bill next year. Maybe 2021 will be kinder to it.


Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks