United States

Many U.S. veterans land behind bars. A unique, new law may change that.

Tony Miller killed countless enemy forces while deployed in Iraq, where his Army unit captured so many high-value targets that they received a valor award.

“Violence was good,” said Miller, a paratrooper, who was sent back to Iraq just 17 days after returning home from his first deployment.  “Violence was rewarded.”

But once he left the military in 2008, Miller’s aggression was no longer an asset, and he was consumed by anger, exacerbated by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. He was charged with second-degree assault with a firearm in 2014 and convicted soon after of felony drug possession — the consequences of which threatened to permanently derail any chance he had of resuming a productive life as a civilian.

In an alarming statistic, roughly one-third of U.S. military veterans say they have been arrested and jailed at least once in their lives, compared to fewer than one-fifth of civilians, a report released last month by the Council on Criminal Justice found. The nonpartisan think tank cited service-related trauma, including PTSD, and substance abuse issues as some of the driving factors. 

Now, advocates say, a unique, new Minnesota law may turn the tide at a critical point for millions of post-9/11 veterans, as many struggle to put the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, the nation’s longest war, behind them.

Last August, Minnesota became the first state to allow veterans with service-related trauma to avoid serving time for certain crimes, while ensuring a conviction does not stain their record. 

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the measure does not show leniency to serious violent crimes, such as murder and manslaughter. But supporters say it is a compassionate way to hold veterans accountable for many less-severe cases, including theft and DWI, while treating underlying issues, such as PTSD.

“Some of those emotions are really raw,” said Miller, 39, who lives in Farmington, Minnesota, with his wife and dogs.

The worst of Miller’s memories crop up during mundane moments. Vivid details of the first man he fatally shot at close range, and the body of a young child shredded by a rocket-propelled grenade, flash in his mind sometimes when he’s waiting at a traffic light or when he’s taking a shower.

“Some of that stuff is 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 a draft.

That means many have served multiple deployments, which has translated into higher rates of post-traumatic stress injuries than service members in the past, said Brock Hunter, an Army veteran and Minneapolis-based criminal defense attorney for veterans.

“The burden of the fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders,” he said.

Veterans with multiple deployments, in particular, are three times more likely to develop PTSD than those who did not deploy, the Council on Criminal Justice said. And veterans with PTSD, who report high levels of anger or irritability, are about 60% more likely than those without PTSD to make contact with the criminal justice system, according to a VA study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2020.

“There is good reason to believe more of them will bring their war home with them than ever before,” Hunter said.

Some 107,400 veterans were in state or federal prisons in 2016, the most recent year with available data by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Those who have served time face permanent blights on their records that experts say can affect their ability to obtain housing, jobs, education and occupational licenses. 

“It really is a modern-day scarlet letter,” said Hunter, who co-founded the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit group that led the passage of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act. “Somebody’s a second-class citizen for the rest of their life.”

Image: Tony Miller in 2020.

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 raided it. Prosecutors charged him with felony fifth-degree controlled substance, and because his legally-owned firearms were in the vicinity of the drugs, they enhanced the charge.

Rather than fight another trial and risk landing in prison, which would cause him to lose his Veterans Affairs benefits, Miller pleaded guilty. In lieu 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 on his record, he said, no landlord would rent to him and he could no longer pursue his dream of becoming a social worker. 

Image: Berlynn Fleury in her Marine Corps. uniform in 2009.

Shame similarly followed Berlynn Fleury after the former Marine bulk fuel specialist graduated in 2018 from Ramsey County Veterans Court, where she served her sentence for second-degree controlled substance possession and felony auto theft charges.

“All anybody cared about was my record,” said Fleury, 30, of Brownton, Minnesota. “People were still hanging it over my head.”

An alternative to jail

For the last year, the Veterans Restorative Justice Act has cleared that stigma in Minnesota, making the state the most progressive in the nation for its treatment of veterans involved in the criminal justice system.

There are more than 600 Veterans Treatment Courts nationwide, including in 48 states and Guam. Many allow a veteran to avoid a criminal conviction, but “enough of them don’t, creating a serious problem with disparity,” Hunter said. 

Without uniform sentencing guidelines, discretion on who goes to prison, and for how long, “varies dramatically” from judge to judge, he said.

Minnesota’s new law establishes a consistent set of standards for every criminal court in the state, depending on the offender’s criminal history and the severity of the crime. It outlines severely violent crimes that do not qualify, and crimes that do, including some cases of assault.

To qualify, veterans must also prove their offense was committed as the result of sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse or a mental health condition stemming from their service. And while they must plead guilty — the first step to accountability — the conviction is never entered on the record. 

“They all equally should have the same chance to get their lives back on track,” Hunter said.

What else to know on issues with the military

In Minnesota, it is too soon for data to indicate whether the new law is working to reduce veteran incarceration and recidivism. But the Hennepin County Veterans Court has started to see some of its early impacts. At least 22 veterans have graduated its treatment program since the law went into effect on Aug. 1, 2021.

On a recent Monday morning, an Army veteran stands to tell the court he does not recognize who he was a year ago, when he was spiraling from a divorce, depression and alcoholism, and facing a misdemeanor domestic violence assault charge.

Since then, Judge Lisa Janzen tells the court, he has addressed his depression, stayed sober, started therapy, finished school, found work and finished the court’s domestic violence program.

Applause fills the courtroom, as the judge dismisses his charge.

“You’ve turned everything around,” she said.

More needs to be done

Experts say there is still much to be studied. The lack of data on the issue led the Council on Criminal Justice to launch a national commission to examine over the next two years why so many veterans land behind bars. A 15-member panel of experts will recommend policy changes.

With roughly 200,000 active-duty service members exiting the armed forces annually, that creates a public safety issue, said Hunter and Army Col. Jim Seward, one of the authors of the council’s report. 

“We do a better job than any country in the world at taking a young individual with no criminal record and turning them into a very lethal and very well-trained killer,” Seward said. 

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