Tony Miller quit a factory job in 2005 to join the Army.

"In Iraq, our team had the latitude to do a lot of violent things," said Miller, who served two tours. "I thrived in that environment. Then we were turned back into society. And you can't do that in civilian society.''

Miller, 40, was headed for trouble in the Twin Cities after his military service. He sold drugs. And it gave him the same rush as combat.

"The black market is dangerous,' he said. "I had a gun. I carried drugs. The people I dealt with carried drugs and guns. The danger was addicting.''

Miller was arrested and jailed for possession of a firearm and drugs in 2015. Under threat of criminal prosecution and several years in prison, he entered a fledgling Minnesota veterans court program that required a guilty plea, apology, probation and more.

Miller, who had never been in a fight before Iraq, also did not consider counseling after his tour for his "invisible injuries." He eventually was diagnosed with PTSD.

"By 2019, I accomplished everything the judge ordered, including graduating from vets court, staying drug- and alcohol-free and getting treatment at the VA," Miller said. "I never violated probation. And I was attending college at the University of St. Thomas."

Today, Miller helps other vets as a mental health case manager with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency that helped him work through his war-related demons.

Miller benefited from one of the veterans treatment courts in several Minnesota counties, including Hennepin. Then in 2021, the Legislature passed the bipartisan-supported Minnesota Veterans Restorative Justice Act, which provides guidelines to courts on considering and sentencing veterans.

While some people might describe the veterans court program as "the easy way out," Gov. Tim Walz said when he signed the bill into law, "Veterans court is much harder work. It's much more intensive and because of that, it's much more effective."

It's estimated that state courts have successfully implemented more than 650 veterans courts around the country. And more than 100 Minnesota veterans have benefited from the diversion-to-treatment program over the past couple of years, estimated Brock Hunter, an Army veteran and Minneapolis attorney.

Hunter has been involved for years in advocating for veterans and the 2021 legislation with his law partner and fellow veteran Ryan Else. They are authors of "The Attorney's Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court.'' The book and Minnesota law have been praised by veterans' advocates, including VA Secretary Denis McDonough and former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a veteran who is chair of the national Veterans Justice Commission.

Ending the confusion

Before the 2021 law, Minnesota veterans courts were bedeviled by county-by-county disparities. In 2017, the state's public defenders pulled out of the program for that reason. That prompted veterans-court proponents to focus on the state legislation that brought some uniformity to procedures and provided a "toolbox" to new and participating judges.

"The Restorative Justice Act excludes murder, rape and other heinous violent crimes," Hunter said. "This is for any offense that is presumptively eligible for probation … up to low- to mid-level felonies. Defendants are given an opportunity to avoid criminal convictions. They must plead guilty. The judge can withhold the conviction. And give conditions … such as stay sober. Go to VA counseling. The judge then can eventually tear up the guilty plea.''

And defendants can move forward with their lives.

It's estimated that, historically, 1 in 3 veterans serves jail time, much higher than the general population, according to the Veterans Justice Commission.

Some of the criminality is rooted in postwar trauma that can be exacerbated by the use of alcohol and drugs and lead to destructive behavior that "victimizes their families and the communities they fought to protect," noted Hank Shea, a former Army officer, federal prosecutor, University of St. Thomas law professor and vice chair of the Minneapolis-based Veterans Defense Project.

"Restorative justice doesn't work for anybody unless there's a full admission of responsibility," added Shea. " 'I did wrong, and I want to make amends.' "

Although definitive statistics aren't yet available, the early indications are that veterans courts are more effective and economical than prison, according to Hunter and Jim Seward, an Army veteran who is executive director of the national Veterans Justice Commission.

It is estimated that recidivism rates are as low as 10% among veterans who go through restorative justice courts, a much lower level than for the overall prison population.

"There are opportunities to expand veterans treatment courts to divert from traditional courts and get them the treatment they need for productive lives," Kristine Huskey, director of the Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Arizona law school, said at a recent forum on veterans courts at the St. Thomas law school.

'No shame'

Hector Matascastillo, who spent nearly 20 years in the Army, including combat deployments, is now a psychologist who works with mentally ill people, including veterans. He recalled a dispute with his wife while on leave years ago that spiraled into him screaming military commands as he was confronted by two summoned police officers.

"I was disassociating," recalled Matascastillo. ''I was facing two police officers. But the cops understood I was a vet [with issues].

"The judge said I had more demons than I could handle. He ordered me to therapy. I had an amazing second chance. There is no shame in getting help. There is shame in handcuffs."

Today, Miller and Matascastillo are healthy, productive citizens.

"I'm thankful for my wife [Nancy Miller], my dogs and seeing what the Veterans Defense Project has done for and with our veterans," Miller concluded. "I don't want the next veteran to go through what I went through."

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Neal St. Anthony is a Minneapolis freelance writer.