ST. PAUL, MN - Gov. Tim Walz signed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, a bipartisan bill to provide veterans caught up in the criminal justice system with social assistance and probation rather than jail time, into law on Tuesday, August 10.
The bill provides an alternative to jail for veterans who commit a less severe violation – level 7 or below – by allowing judges to examine service-related conditions such as chemical exposure, bodily ailments, post-traumatic stress disorder, and military sexual trauma.
"This is a win for our state's veterans," MDVA Commissioner Larry Herke stated during a press conference and ceremonial bill signing event on August 10. "The success of this effort demonstrates the positive outcome of the three branches of government working together to support Minnesota Veterans."
Specific military experiences can have a lasting effect on a Veteran's ability to successfully reintegrate into society upon release. There may be a link between a Veteran's legal difficulties and their difficulty with work, homelessness or secure housing, mental health issues, or even suicide.
Minnesota courts are guided by the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) when sentencing a justice-involved Veteran. It does not establish Veterans Treatment Courts in all counties or municipalities. It does, however, establish post-plea sentence options for qualifying Veterans in all state courts.
This will enable courts to provide access to programs and treatment for a service-connected condition that resulted in or contributed to a criminal offense, as well as opportunities to collaborate with County Veterans Service Officers (CVSOs) and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to maximize benefits and services available to Veterans.
Army Veteran Jeff Johnson addressed the press conference, saying, "I stand before you probably the most fortunate Veteran in the State." Johnson has run-ins with the authorities due to his PTSD and mental health difficulties. Rather than facing incarceration, he received a second opportunity by enrolling in a special Veterans Court program that provides treatment and support services.
While some may refer to Veterans Court as "the easy way out," Governor Tim Walz argued, "…Veterans Court is much harder work. It's much more intensive and because of that, it's much more effective."
Indeed, Veteran Jeff Johnson states, "This is not a place where a Veteran gets his or her life back. They get a new life, a life that is productive and satisfying."
The Veterans Restorative Justice Act was passed after more than two years of effort by a large coalition of Veterans, activists, stakeholders, legislators, and their staffs.
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