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Minnesota officials laud Veterans Restorative Justice Act as an 'opportunity to have another path'

Gov. Tim Walz joined veterans organization leaders, lawmakers and others on Tuesday, Aug. 10, to ceremonially sign the bill and highlight its passage.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, stood with veterans organization heads, county attorneys, defense attorneys, lawmakers and others at the Minnesota Capitol complex to highlight the passage of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota veterans that commit a criminal offense as a result of a service-related condition could be granted a pathway to restitution without jail time under a measure approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz.

Minnesota veterans organization leaders, prosecutors, defense attorneys, lawmakers and others on Tuesday, Aug. 10, met outside the Capitol to watch Walz symbolically sign the measure into law weeks after he approved it in a private setting. And they applauded the new policy.

The so-called Veterans Restorative Justice Act sets up alternate courses through the criminal justice system for veterans that struggle with injuries, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or chemical exposure. Veterans facing lower-level offenses would be eligible to be placed on probation and complete rehabilitation and county programming rather than going to jail. And those who completed their rehabilitation and treatment requirements could see their charges wiped away under the program.

Veterans courts allow for similar opportunities in certain parts of the state, but the law will make those options available statewide, the law's supporters said.

"This is an opportunity for those veterans that are having those difficulties with the reintegration to have some help and assistance, something other than just going to jail, this gives them an opportunity to have another path," Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke said.

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Jeff Johnson, a Ramsey County Veterans Court graduate, said completing the treatment and rehabilitation programs required through the specialty court helped him reacclimate to civilian life after 24 years of active duty service.

"When I got out, I'll be honest with you, even though I grew up here in Minnesota ... I felt like a Martian. It takes a lot of adjustment to figure out the society I hadn't participated in in 24 years," Johnson said. "(Veterans Court) is not a place where a veteran gets his or her life back, not in the least. They get a new life."

Advocates spent years attempting to pass the proposal in St. Paul before the divided Legislature agreed to advance it earlier this year. And both Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday commended the veterans advocacy organizations for keeping up the push to get the proposal through the Statehouse.

"Anyone who understands specialty courts or veterans courts knows this is much harder work, this is much more intensive," Walz said. "And because of that, it's much more effective in getting the results we want, which is a healing of that warrior, which is a return to their families, a return to their communities, a return to productivity, all of the things we want our justice system to do is being done by the folks here."

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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