Minnesota law gives veterans a chance to avoid convictions

When Berlynn Fleury left the Marines in 2011, all the structure in her life the Corps provided suddenly disappeared.

"For me, getting out of the military was pretty traumatic," recalled Fleury. "I have an honorable discharge, but I experienced military sexual trauma and I didn’t deal with that well."

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Fleury admits her way of dealing with it was to self-medicate.  She was introduced to a synthetic stimulant while she was still serving the Corps.  When she left the Marines she discovered methamphetamines.

"It took all the pain away, took all the bad memories away. And eventually, all I had left was the pain," she said.

Eventually, her drug use collided with the criminal justice system. Fleury admits she had charges in many different counties, and it led to homelessness.

"I am no stranger to a jail cell, I’ll tell you that," Fleury said while reflecting on her past troubles.

Her story is far from unique.  An August report from the Council on Criminal Justice found one-third of veterans self-reported having been arrested and booked into jail at least once.  And it comes at a time when America has been asking more of its active-duty military.  Since 9-11, the Council reports more than four million Americans have served in the military.  Three-quarters of them have been deployed at least once, and the report finds that they were twice as likely to see combat as those military members who served before 9/11.

"For far too long, with far too many generations of past veterans returning from war who fallen into the justice system, we’ve left them behind," said Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis attorney.

Hunter along with fellow attorney Ryan Else formed the Veterans Defense Project, an advocacy organization that helps veterans caught in the criminal justice system.

"Ryan and I, in our advocacy, often say that leaving a veteran behind in the justice system is no different than leaving them behind on the battlefield," said Hunter.

Together with Minnesota judges, prosecutors, and the University of St. Thomas School of Law, they worked with legislators to pass the Minnesota Veterans Restorative Justice Act in 2021. The law allows judges to defer criminal convictions on lower-level crimes committed by veterans who have proven PTSD, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, or other mental illnesses connected to their military service. 

It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.  The defendant must plead guilty.  But if they undergo and complete treatment and rehabilitation supervised by the court, the judge will dismiss the conviction from their criminal record.

"A criminal conviction today is the modern-day scarlet letter," explained Hunter. "If you have a military veteran who is already struggling to reintegrate back into their community after their military service, a conviction like that can be the final straw that really prevents them from ever meaningfully rejoining their community and being a fully functioning citizen."

"If not for the restorative justice program, I would still be in prison," said Fleury.  Her case was sent to the Ramsey County Veterans Court where the judge granted her the chance of treatment.

"By the grace of God, because of all of these restorative justice programs, I didn’t go to prison," said Fleury.  "Ultimately, instead of being punished, I was able to create a life."

Fleury now works for the VA Hospital in Minneapolis at the inpatient psychiatric unit where she provided one-on-one support as well as facilitating recovery groups.

Minnesota’s restorative justice law for veterans is one of at least two such laws in the country.  California has a similar law.  But Hunter and Else would like to see the program extended to other states.  The University of St. Thomas School of Law is holding a program called "Honoring Veterans with Restorative Justice" on Veterans Day, November 11th starting at 4 p.m. in the atrium of the school. The event will be streamed as well. To register visit, you can click here.

As the nation observes Veterans Day, both Hunter and Else say these restorative justice laws help secure hope to veterans.

"I think it says the nation will make good on its promise to bring them all the way home," said Hunter.