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Diversion program would offer veterans help instead of jail time

Veterans with service-connected trauma, substance abuse, or mental health conditions, who are accused of committing all but the most serious crimes, could receive probation and social services instead of serving jail time.

Passed Thursday by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division, HF717, as amended, would require courts to send such veterans who plead guilty to their offenses to probation while staying adjudication of the case. Sponsored by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), the bill was amended with delete-all language from HF998, introduced last year by Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls).

Offenders would need to plead guilty, take responsibility for committing the crime, and must submit to rehabilitative efforts and oversight deemed necessary by a court to protect the public’s safety. “It is not a free ride,” said Ecklund.

The bill would only apply to veterans accused of less-severe offenses, specifically those at Level 7 or less on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s sentencing grid. Veterans would be prohibited from entering this program if the criminal charge would require predatory offender registration.

In addition, the defendant must claim the offense was committed due to a service-connected sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse or mental health condition. The veteran would be given probation while the courts investigate the claim.

The bill, passed on a 10-7 party-line vote, was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee. Its companion, SF1153, is sponsored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) and awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

The bill has been named the Military Veteran Offenders Restorative Justice Act, and states that: “It is in the interests of justice to restore a defendant who acquired a criminal record due to a mental health condition stemming from service in the United States military to the community of law abiding citizens.”

“We owe it to them to make every effort we can to make sure they can reintegrate into society,” said Ecklund.

A defendant who wishes to take advantage of the special provisions for veterans in the bill would have to grant the courts access to his or her military records to determine whether the defendant’s actions were service-related. Records on how the court case is decided would remain sealed and would not be made public.

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) opposes the provision to seal court records, especially in cases of domestic assault. “That will absolutely endanger victims,” she said.

John Kingrey, board chair of the Veterans Defense Project, testified that although court records under this program would be sealed, they would still be retained by the courts and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Those agencies could still access the criminal records of a veteran who reoffends after completing this diversion program, he said.

O’Neill and several other Republicans expressed concern the bill would replace the existing veterans treatment courts already in place in several counties.

Kingrey, who also serves as a mentor in Ramsey County’s veterans treatment court, said the intent of the bill is not to replace what now exists, but to provide uniform standards for existing veterans treatment courts and to give guidance to counties considering starting them.

Currently, only 16 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have these courts.

“This bill is designed to bring services primarily to Greater Minnesota where there are not veterans’ courts,” said Rep. Jack Considine Jr. (DFL-Mankato).

To accomplish that goal, counties and cities would be authorized to establish and operate these pretrial diversion programs for eligible veterans.

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