After 2 years, Veterans Restorative Justice Act changing lives
It took a few years, but in 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act and Governor Tim Walz signed it into law. It might be among the most impactful state laws — it not only doesn’t cost money but likely saves the state money.
“We’re taking advantage of resources that are already there in the justice system, we’re dealing with veteran offenders who are already in the system and are going to be dealt with in the system one way or another,” said Brock Hunter, a veteran, and attorney who lobbied for passage of the act as one of the founders of the Veterans Defense Project. “The legislature found because of the way we’re streamlining processes, avoiding cases being litigated and taken to trial and in many cases avoiding veterans spending substantial amounts of time in jail or prison, we’re actually saving the state money.”
The law doesn’t require statistics to be gathered regarding how many veteran offenders participate in the program, but Hunter believes it to be in the hundreds. One of them is a former client of his law firm, Tony Miller.
“I was looking at probably three years in federal prison,” Miller told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
Miller, 40, was arrested on drug and weapons charges several years after spending two tours of duty in Iraq when he was between the ages of 19 and 23. He had difficulty blending back into civilian life after seeing significant combat and deaths in Iraq. He was eventually drawn to drug dealing and using weapons to collect debts.
“That life was very appealing out of the military,” he said. “There was action. There was violence. There was all those things about the military that we engaged in that were attractive to me and that was a way that I knew how to operate.”
Miller was able to take part in the Hennepin County Veterans Treatment Court, which served as a sort of template for the statewide Veterans Restorative Justice Act. Veterans are able to reach plea deals and avoid jail or prison time as long as they don’t re-offend and agree to treatment for things like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or depression.
Once they successfully fulfill the plea agreement, it can be life-changing for veterans.
“The judge is granted the authority under the statute to vacate their previous plea and to dismiss the charge and go forward without a conviction,” Hunter said.
In Miller’s case, he successfully completed his requirements and now works at the Veterans Administration in Minneapolis counseling other veterans, including helping save lives in their suicide prevention program.
On Thursday, supporters of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act will celebrate two years of the program with a symposium at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis.
Hunter says Tony Miller is just one example of why this program is so important.
“Tony is a shining example of what this program is all about. I would note though that there are many, many other Tony Millers out there who have really dramatically turned their lives around and living good, productive lives, flourishing in their communities,” he said.