When military vets come home from deployment, they often find their service has taken a mental toll. That can mean diagnosable PTSD or simply unregulated emotions that can prompt the vet to strike out or engage in anti-social behavior.

Many vets self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or become drug dependent. They sometimes commit disciplinary violations or criminal offenses because of these struggles.

In Minnesota and around the nation, courts are working to address the problem of vets who commit crimes due to common, service-related conditions like substance abuse and PTSD.

Instead of prosecuting the vet to the fullest extent of the law, states are setting up veterans courts to help them resolve their underlying issues and get back on track. These courts use a process called “restorative justice.”

“It’s simple: we broke ’em, we fix ’em,” commented the Washington County Attorney recently, discussing such programs.

Veterans courts are already available in a number of counties. Bills about to be put before the state House and Senate and could expand veterans courts statewide. Governor Tim Walz, himself an Army vet, announced his enthusiastic support for the legislation, called the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, even before it is officially introduced.

How do veterans courts work?

Generally, cases are referred to veterans courts on a case-by-case basis by agreement of the prosecutor, defendant and court. In order to qualify, the defendant must:

  • Live in the applicable county or near the court
  • Have served in the U.S. armed forces
  • Be diagnosed with a treatable mental, behavioral or chemical health issue
  • Be charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or non-violent felony

The courts use a “restorative post-plea, pre-adjudication model.” That means the vet enters a guilty plea but the court places a stay on adjudication of that plea, holding it in suspension. Then, the court places the vet on probation or conditional release. The judge orders certain requirements and goals for the vet to meet. Supervision is intensive, and the vet returns for periodic reviews to monitor compliance. If the vet successfully completes their probation or conditional release, the charges are dismissed.

Examples of offenses that are currently eligible for veterans court include drug crimes, domestic violence, DWI, theft to support a drug habit, disorderly conduct and others. The Veterans Restorative Justice Act could expand the list of eligible offenses.

Although implementation of the veterans courts has not been perfect, there have been promising successes. Many vets have left the program with clean criminal records and intact families when traditional methods would simply have sent them to jail or prison.

If you are interested in veterans court or another alternative sentencing program, discuss your situation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.