Minnesota veterans make special session push to expand veterans courts statewide
By REID FORGRAVE | The Star Tribune | Published: July 15, 2020
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — When Tony Miller returned to Minnesota in 2008 after two tours in Iraq, the Army veteran wasn't right. Military buddies were dying by suicide. He didn't like how his antipsychotic medications made him feel, so he smoked marijuana instead. He was filled with anger, and he vented that anger as a bouncer at a Twin Cities hockey pub. When a bar patron acted out, Miller could beat him up.
It was 2015 when Miller was arrested on drug charges. His attorney helped get him into veterans court, a new concept in Hennepin County that helped give veterans a second chance. Instead of prison, the alternative court instituted another plan. Miller had to stay sober and keep regular therapy appointments at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, where he worked through his traumatic experiences in Iraq. Five years later, Miller, 37 and living in Bloomington, is about to start at the University of St. Thomas to get his master's social work. After graduation, he wants to do counseling work at the VA.
Now Miller's anger is directed at state politicians. For two years in a row, legislation to expand veterans courts throughout greater Minnesota has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. In a last-ditch effort to get it passed this year, veterans organizations are increasing pressure on legislators to pass a bill during this week's special session.
The partisan politics that has stalled the bill is "a slap in the face to veterans," Miller said. "I pray that this will pass." But he also realizes "coronavirus is completely overshadowing every other issue we have."
Gov. Tim Walz called this week's special session to extend the COVID-19 peacetime emergency order by 30 days, and he has urged the Legislature to pass a "robust" capital investment package as well as police reform and assistance for businesses hurt by civil unrest following George Floyd's death in May.
Veterans advocates frame the bill as fitting into this moment, since it is both an alternative form of criminal justice and a cost-saver as COVID-19 has ravaged state finances.
The Veterans Restorative Justice Act hasn't made it out of committee in the Senate during the past two legislative sessions, despite legislators on both sides claiming to support the bill that would keep veterans who have committed lower-level criminal offenses out of prison.
The fiscal note attached to the legislation says that had the bill been enacted at the end of the 2019 session, the state would already have saved $422,000 by lower incarceration costs, and $1.3 million by June 2021.
"It costs the state's taxpayers money every day this bill does not pass," said Tommy Johnson, a veterans advocate with the VFW Post in Hopkins.
Parties differ on why the bill has yet to pass.
Republicans say it's a simple question of the Legislature being overwhelmed with COVID-19 concerns. Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, a military veteran, who says he supports the bill, believes it would have passed this session if it weren't for COVID-19 and George Floyd's killing. This week's limited, narrow special session is not the time for a bill like this, he said.
"That's not what this special session is going to be," said Chamberlain, who added he will support the bill in 2021. "There's always next year."
But DFL politicians claim partisan politics is preventing a bipartisan bill supported by national veterans organizations from immediately passing.
"In the 10 years I've been in the Legislature, this was the worst session for political partisanship I've ever seen," said Sen. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, the ranking minority member of the Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee. "But generally with issues regarding veterans, that doesn't happen."
This version of the bill would be limited to veterans with service-related disorders facing low-level felony charges (no more severe than a level 7 criminal offense), and only if the defendant claims the offense was connected to military service. In 2019, 6% of offenders incarcerated in a Minnesota correctional facility self-reported that they were veterans.
For Jeff Johnson, a 70-year-old retired Army major from Shoreview, every day the Legislature waits is a mistake.
Johnson credits the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and the veterans court for saving his life. Johnson had been bedridden and sick for six years — back and balance issues, nerve surgeries, stress — when in 2017 he called 911, intending to commit "suicide by cop." Instead, deputies shot him with nonlethal beanbags. Veterans court directed him to an inpatient treatment program at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System. He now feels better than any time in his adult life.
"This bill has been up twice," Johnson said. "It's been a political football enough."