Last week, Minnesota became the second state in the nation to pass a sentence-mitigation bill for veterans facing criminal prosecution who suffer from combat related mental health disorders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law the evening of May 12, meaning courts will now be allowed to consider treatment over incarceration. California passed a similar law in 2007.
The legislation, tucked into the Reentry Omnibus Bill, requires the courts to inquire whether a defendant facing criminal proceedings is a veteran. By establishing military service, attorneys can then order a psychological evaluation. If a veteran is found to be suffering from a combat related mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the courts will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that treatment can be considered as part of the sentencing.
"I really do believe the judges will consider this, and use it as a condition of probation," says Brockton Hunter, a veteran and current legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Military veterans have a heck of a time asking for help. They're proud and they're trained to believe that they can handle anything."
Instead of seeking therapy, many veterans suffering from mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with their problems, says Hunter, who authored the bill with the help of local veteran activist Guy Gambill.
According to a recent RAND report, one in five veterans suffers from psychological problems and many are not getting adequate care. The guerilla insurgency in Iraq and the increased stress of serving multiple tours has led to higher incidents of mental disorders.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Hunter. "We need to prepare for the rest as they continue to come home."
In the last three years, Hunter estimates he's defended at least 25 veterans whose military service can be linked to their crime, including Shoreview resident Tony Klecker, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who is now in jail for killing a 16-year-old while driving drunk in South St. Paul.
"This is not the kind of disease that is just going to go away," says Hunter. "Without proper treatment and care this stuff can linger for decades.... Until we get them help, they will continue to present the same problem, the same danger to public safety."
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that veterans accounted for 13 percent of state prisoners and 12 percent of jail inmates, with some 225,700 veterans of the U.S. Military incarcerated.
In 2006, 25 percent of Minnesota's male homeless population were veterans, more than half of them deemed to have a serious mental illness.
"The memories of the Vietnam era haunt us all," says state Sen. Linda Higgins-DFL, who was instrumental in the bill's passing. "Everyone my age can remember at least one veteran of that war who came back and was never quite right again. We can't repeat that."
Besides the personal and often devastating social repercussions untreated mental illness can have on soldiers and their families, the RAND report also warns of the economic costs to society associated with veterans suffering from untreated mental health disorders. "Billions of dollars" of government spending can be avoided with appropriate treatment, its authors argued.
"It makes a lot more sense to give them a break now, rather than just throwing them in the slammer and dealing with it on the other end," says Gambill, a former homeless veteran himself. "I can tell you it would have made all the difference in the world for many men I know who are now quite lost or dead."
Gambill is hoping to get a national version of the bill passed by Congress. He has spent the last few weeks in Washington, D.C., lobbying Sen. Amy Klobuchar's and Congressman Keith Ellison's offices for a congressional resolution drawing attention to the nexus between veterans, mental health, and crime.
"We are creating a permanent underclass here in the United States, bagged, tagged, and set on the shelf to stumble along until the lights go out," he wrote in an email from D.C. "For many, this [legislation] is a welcome respite from the piecemeal, haphazard existence we are forced to live."
By Beth Walton Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages