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We should treat, not punish, troubled vets

Apr 2, 2021 | News Clip

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune on April 1, 2021. You can find the original here.

We seek to expand access to a restorative sentencing structure.

“I am not a victim. I am a proud wife of a man that honorably served his country for 22 years.”

These words were written by the wife of an Army infantryman who served six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned two Purple Heart medals and two Bronze Star medals for valor. As a result of his service, he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

These service-related conditions eventually led to an incident for which this veteran was charged with assault with a firearm and terroristic threats. These charges led him to a Veterans Treatment Court, from which he received psychiatric treatment, attended group therapy sessions, and was able to heal and help others heal from service-related trauma and injury.

The court wrote in its presentence investigation: “The defendant is a remarkable man who lives an exemplary life. Serving in the military was an honor and significant sacrifice. It would be difficult for anyone to experience what the defendant has and then return home to a ‘normal life.’‚ÄČ”

This veteran’s struggles are all too common. Yet only 26 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have a Veterans Treatment Court. In these specialized courts, veterans receive a special sentencing structure that provides them with an alternative to jail or prison through a non-adversarial approach. This approach incorporates support, treatment and encouragement that has changed the lives of many veterans and their families.

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA, HF 478) seeks to dramatically expand access to a restorative sentencing structure for veterans in Minnesota. I am honored to be its lead author.

The VRJA would expand access to a restorative sentencing structure statewide by creating a Veterans Treatment Court model that could be implemented in counties even where there are no such courts. This would be available only for certain veterans charged with low-level offenses where a direct connection between a service-related trauma or injury and the criminal charges could be demonstrated. This innovative approach is projected to save the state of Minnesota an estimated $1.2 million due to reduced recidivism and a decreased need for prison beds.

This bill is good policy:

  1. It acknowledges and honors the sacrifice of veterans to our country.
  2. It is a cost-efficient system of justice that saves state funds so that we can put public safety dollars where they are most needed.
  3. A restorative approach to sentencing is a more humane, just system that acknowledges that we all make mistakes and should have a shot at redemption.
  4. Organizations such as Violence Free Minnesota support this bill because it is better for victims of domestic violence. Veterans who successfully graduate from a Veterans Treatment Court are able to live their fullest lives and be truly present for their families. Conversely, a punitive sentence means that the veteran returns to their family without the underlying trauma addressed and is likely to continue a cycle of destructive behavior.
  5. Restorative justice protects public safety. Treatment courts of all kinds have been demonstrated to reduce repeat offenses dramatically.

I had the privilege of attending an afternoon of Veterans Treatment Court. The experience made a deep impression on me. The judge, prosecutor and probation officer all told me that Veterans Treatment Court was their favorite part of their jobs. This was abundantly clear in the conversations they had as they discussed the progress of the veterans with hearings that afternoon. I was struck by how much joy the group took in supporting and uplifting the lives of veterans on the path to rehabilitation.

I’d like to close with another quote, from the same wife of the decorated veteran who completed Veterans Treatment Court. She wrote:

“The night he was arrested was a low point in both our lives. But I’m thankful that my husband loves his family enough to recognize that he needs help and is brave enough to go and get it.”

It is my fervent hope that this is the year the Minnesota Legislature will enact the Veterans Restorative Justice Act to enhance public safety, protect victims, and provide the services and support veterans in Minnesota need and deserve.

Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, is a member of the Minnesota House.