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Rubén Rosario: Call to arms for veterans who commit certain crimes. They deserve a break.
Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 1/25/2019
Jan. 25--It was during a panel discussion this week on the proposed Veterans Restorative Justice Act that Washington County Attorney Pete Orput was asked why certain offenders, veterans whose service experience was linked to their lawbreaking, deserve more of a break in court.
"From the 2000s, in the criminal justice system, all I've been seeing is the largest number of combat veterans," Orput, a Marine veteran, told the crowd of prosecutors, public defenders, judges, veterans and other supporters who attended the bill-launch event at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.
"How do we judge them?" he said. "They weren't criminal when they entered the service. They weren't criminal during their service, so why now? We could easily take out the machine and run them through like everybody else. It's simple. We broke them. We fix them."
Ramsey County public defender Evan Tsai put it this way in a video shown during the event:"These are people who we've asked to pick up a weapon, to go man a post, and to end somebody's life, in the name of protecting our freedom and our democracy. The least that we can do is to say thank you. ... Let us help you."
Actually, the best thing we can do for these servicemen is not send them off in the first place to risk their lives and sanity in poorly thought out conflicts. We've been at continuous war now 17 years and counting.
But it is what it is. The proposed bill, which has already received the "100 percent" support of Gov. Tim Walz, would expand the veterans treatment court model statewide. There are 12 such courts in the state serving a fraction of veterans, mostly first-time offenders, who have committed Severity Level 7 and below crimes such as theft, burglary, DWI, including some felony level assault offenses.
It also attempts to end the disparities among counties in the way veteran offenders are handled. As has happened, veteran treatment court graduates in some counties still have a felony on their record while other VTC participants don't although both groups met the same requirements to receive treatment and not reoffend.
In many jurisdictions, veterans were required to accept a conviction before acceptance into the VTC program. That, along with limited resources, was the main reason State Public Defender Bill Ward pulled public defenders from taking part in the veteran treatment court process.
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"Why would I waste our resources on people who have already been convicted?" Ward said during the panel discussion. Frankly, it sounds terrible and you can hate me for it ... but in the end we have to make a decision on how to spend the limited resources we have."
Ward, reluctantly accepted an invitation to join a bill proposal working group led by Brock Hunter. An Army veteran and lawyer, Hunter helped found Veterans Defense Project, a legal advocacy and lobbying group.
"We believe it is the most comprehensive and effective veteran statute in the country," Hunter told me. Ward now is generally on board with the proposed bill, which empowers judges statewide to grant a stay of adjudication to eligible veteran offenders.
A guilty plea is accepted but held by the court as "leverage to ensure compliance with probationary treatment," according to a VDP pamphlet distributed at the event. "if the veteran is successful, the court can restore the veteran to the community of law-abiding citizens. If the veteran fails, the court can use the conviction as an immediate sanction since the plea is sufficient to establish guilt."
Since it's early in the sausage-making period at the state Capitol, the bill will probably get massaged, undergo negotiation and several drafts and get necessary input from victim rights and other groups before it finds its way to a floor vote weeks from now.
Indeed the 20-member Minnesota County Attorneys Association's criminal law committee refused to this week to approve the bill as written.
"They generally endorse the veterans-court concept, but there are some concerns in the language," said Robert Small, a retired Hennepin County judge and the association's executive director." I think the (VTC) is the greatest thing since sliced bread."
Another concern is that it will strip stay-of-adjudication authority from prosecutors. The committee will make its recommendation to the association's board of directors Friday.
"I believe things will be worked out," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, a board member, told me at the event.
Hennepin County, which established the state's first veterans court in 2008, is not waiting for a law. The stay-of-adjudication model is part of their recommended policy now.
"We've fallen behind," Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Dave Brown, referring to other states like California and Texas that have adopted more innovative ways requiring treatment, not jail.
"As (Hennepin County Attorney) Mike Freeman and I looked at the research and models around the country, we asked ourselves why couldn't we just do this.
"If these highly trained, lethal people are no longer chemically addicted and angry," he added, "then not only are the victims safer but we are all safer."
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