Many US veterans end up behind bars. A unique new law could change that.
Tony Miller killed countless enemy forces during his deployment in Iraq, where his army unit captured enough high-value targets to earn them a medal for bravery.
“Violence was good,” said Miller, a paratrooper who was turned back just 17 days after returning from his first tour of duty in Iraq. “Violence Was Rewarded”
But by the time he left the military in 2008, Miller’s aggression was no longer an asset, and he was consumed by anger made worse by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. He was charged with second-degree assault with a firearm in 2014 and shortly thereafter convicted of drug possession – the consequences of which threatened to permanently ruin any chance he had of resuming productive life as a civilian.
In an alarming statistic, about a third of US military veterans say they have been arrested and detained at least once in their lifetime, compared to less than a fifth of civilians, a report published last month by the Criminal Justice Council. The bipartisan think tank cited job-related trauma, including PTSD, and substance abuse issues as some of the driving factors.
Now, proponents say, a unique, new Minnesota law could turn the tide at a critical juncture for millions of post-9/11 veterans as many struggle to survive the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the nation’s longest war allow.
Last August, Minnesota became the first state to allow veterans with service-related trauma to avoid serving certain crimes while ensuring that a conviction would not tarnish their records.
The Veterans Restorative Justice Act is not a ticket to getting out of prison, and the measure does not show leniency to serious violent crimes such as murder and manslaughter. But supporters say it’s a compassionate way to hold veterans accountable for many less serious cases, including theft and DWI, while also addressing underlying issues like PTSD.
“Some of those emotions are really raw,” said Miller, 39, who lives in Farmington, Minnesota, with his wife and dogs.
Miller’s worst memories surface in everyday moments. Vivid details of the first man he fatally shot at point-blank range and the body of a small child being shredded by a bazooka sometimes flash in his mind as he waits at traffic lights or while he’s taking a shower.
“Some of these things are just never going to go away,” he said.
Living with PTSD
Unlike previous generations of veterans, today’s armed forces have fought lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, simultaneously and without conscription.
That means many have served multiple deployments, which has historically led to higher rates of post-traumatic stress injuries than military personnel, said Brock Hunter, an Army veteran and a Minneapolis-based veterans’ criminal defense attorney.
“The burden of fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders,” he said.
In particular, veterans who have had multiple deployments are three times more likely to develop PTSD than those who have not had a deployment, the Criminal Justice Council said. And veterans with PTSD who report high levels of anger or irritability are about 60% more likely to engage with the criminal justice system than veterans without PTSD, according to a VA study published in Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2020.
“There is good reason to believe that more of them will take their war home with them than ever before,” Hunter said.
About 107,400 veterans were in state or federal prisons in 2016, the most recent year with available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Those who have served time face permanent damage to their records that experts say can affect their ability to obtain housing, jobs, education and professional licenses.
“It’s really a modern scarlet letter,” said Hunter, who co-founded the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit group that spearheaded the passage of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. “Someone is a second-class citizen for the rest of their life.”
In 2014, Miller was charged with second-degree assault with a firearm after he said he lifted his shirt to reveal a gun to avoid a brawl with a group of at least five strangers. He argued it was in self-defense, and a jury acquitted him.
But less than a year later, authorities found marijuana in his home when they searched it. Prosecutors charged him with a fifth-degree felony of a controlled substance, and because his legally possessed firearms were near the drugs, they reinforced the charges.
Rather than pursue another trial and risk ending up in jail, which would result in him losing his Veterans Affairs benefits, Miller pleaded guilty. Instead of being incarcerated, he agreed to complete a court-supervised treatment program at Hennepin County Veterans Court.
He finished the program, which typically lasts 12 to 18 months, in 2018. But because he still had the conviction, he said no landlord would rent to him and he could no longer pursue his dream of becoming a social worker.
Shame similarly followed Berlynn Fleury after the former Navy bulk fuel specialist graduated from Ramsey County Veterans Court in 2018, where she was serving her sentence on second-degree possession of controlled substances and auto theft charges.
“All anyone cared about was my record,” said Fleury, 30, of Brownton, Minnesota. “People still threw it over my head.”
An alternative to prison
Last year, the Veterans Restorative Justice Act removed that stigma in Minnesota, making the state the most progressive in the country for the treatment of veterans involved in the criminal justice system.
There are more than 600 veterans’ treatment courts nationwide, including 48 states and Guam. Many allow a veteran to avoid a criminal conviction, but “enough of them don’t, which creates a serious problem of inequality,” Hunter said.
Without consistent sentencing guidelines, discretion over who goes to jail and for how long varies dramatically from judge to judge, he said.
Minnesota’s new law establishes uniform standards for every criminal court in the state, depending on the offender’s criminal history and the seriousness of the crime. It details serious violent crimes that don’t qualify and crimes that do, including some cases of assault.
To qualify, veterans must also demonstrate that their offense was committed as a result of sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse, or a mental illness resulting from their service. And although they must plead guilty – the first step to accountability – the conviction is never recorded.
“They should all have an equal opportunity to get their lives back on track,” Hunter said.
In Minnesota, it’s too early for data to indicate whether the new law will help reduce veteran incarceration and recidivism. But the Hennepin County Veterans Court has begun to see some of its early impact. Since the law went into effect on August 1, 2021, at least 22 veterans have completed the treatment program.
On a recent Monday morning, an Army veteran stands to tell the court he doesn’t recognize who he was a year ago, when he was walking away from a divorce, depression and alcoholism, and was facing domestic violence assault charges.
Since then, Judge Lisa Janzen tells the court, he has addressed his depression, stayed sober, entered therapy, finished school, found work and ended the court’s domestic violence program.
Applause fills the courtroom as the judge drops his charges.
“You turned everything around,” she said.
More needs to be done
Experts say there is still much to study. The lack of data on the issue prompted the Criminal Justice Council to set up a national commission over the next two years to investigate why so many veterans are ending up behind bars. A 15-strong panel of experts will recommend policy changes.
With about 200,000 active duty personnel retiring from the armed forces each year, it poses a public safety concern, said Hunter and Army Col. Jim Seward, one of the authors of the council’s report.
“We’re doing a better job than any other country in the world at turning a young person with no criminal record into a very deadly and very skilled killer,” Seward said.
“We ask them to do their job and they do their job,” he added. “And then we ask them to come home and be normal, and a lot of people have struggled with that for many generations.”