After two years of debate and revision, the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) finally is ready to become law. In these times we too rarely see examples of bipartisan efforts by our elected officials to enact legislation. However, at the next special session in mid-October, Minnesota legislators will have the long-awaited opportunity to pass the VRJA.
Both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate have passed the same version of the VRJA in separate special sessions. In fact, the Senate passed the bill unanimously last month. This legislation is supported by Gov. Tim Walz, all Minnesota’s veterans’ groups, as well as prosecutors and defense lawyers. Every citizen should welcome and support the VRJA’s enactment. Here is why:
1. For the last 18 years, this country has relied on an all-volunteer military to engage in bloody overseas conflicts. More than 500,000 veterans have returned home with mental and/or psychological injuries, and too many of them have ended up in the criminal justice system.
The great majority of arrested, injured veterans need court-supervised treatment and rehabilitative services, not incarceration and criminal convictions. Although some Minnesota counties already have Veterans Treatment Courts, they apply varying standards and do not provide judges the same authority and discretion to best serve the aims of justice in holding wrongdoers accountable and repairing the harms involved in the offense. This is what restorative justice is all about.
2. The VRJA builds on well-established results. Veterans courts and other treatment/specialty courts have been successful in reducing recidivism, saving taxpayer dollars and, ultimately, protecting public safety.
For example, the veterans court in Ramsey County boasts an astounding 0% recidivism in its six years of operation.
The VRJA will apply to veterans who commit crimes as a result of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma, substance abuse or mental health conditions stemming from service in the United States military. The act establishes a statewide restorative, post-plea adjudication model.
This means the veteran enters a plea to agreed-upon criminal charges but that plea is not accepted or recorded by the court. Upon successful completion of the terms of supervision set by the court, the charges are dismissed without a conviction being entered. If the veteran fails the rehabilitative treatment program, the court may use the conviction as a sanction and impose the necessary incarceration and/or other punishment.
3. The VRJA will provide cost-effective consistency around the state in Veterans Treatment Courts, and by allowing those jurisdictions without a formal treatment court to use the same model of supervision. Expanded use of these courts, accompanied by federally funded Department of Veterans Affairs treatment programs, will save our state approximately $1 million per year.
Further, by taking a restorative rather than punitive approach, the VRJA promotes justice by accepting the government’s and the public’s shared responsibility for crimes that were the foreseeable result of our decision to send our young volunteers into our wars. It also best protects public safety by ensuring that the veteran completes the necessary course of treatment to address the service-related condition that led to the criminal conduct.
Finally, the VRJA best advances civil society by returning professionally trained veterans to the communities of law-abiding citizens they were willing to die for.
Please join us in asking our elected officials to come together later this month to pass the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. For veterans throughout Minnesota, it will be the most meaningful way to say, “Thank you for your service.”
Hank Shea is a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis and a member of the Veterans Defense Project’s board of directors (veteransdefenseproject.org). This commentary is also submitted on behalf of fellow board members John Kingrey, Keith LeBlanc, Lyndsey Olson, Pete Orput, Tom Plunkett, Luis Quinonez, Bruce Richardson, Sara Sommerstrom, Ray Wilson and Evan Tsai.