Gov. Tim Walz says he's committed to improving the way the criminal justice system treats veterans, throwing his support behind an effort to expand the number of veterans courts in the state.
"I want to make it very clear, we stand 100 percent with you," Walz said at a forum veterans court advocates held Tuesday night to push legislation that could be introduced as early as this week. "The governor's office is here to make sure this gets done. And Minnesotans are going to be incredibly grateful for the work that you do here."
In 2008, Minnesota became one of the first states to set up veterans courts, where people charged with crimes related to their military service can avoid convictions if they go through treatment.
Marko Milosevic has been a beneficiary of one such court.
Milosevic served a dozen tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and earned Bronze Stars for his achievements on the battlefield.
But when he returned from his final deployment, stress from the repeated deployments caught up with him. He joined an outlaw motorcycle club, but got kicked out for being too reckless.
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Several years ago, after a night of heavy drinking, Milosevic came home to his wife Samantha, who was clutching a knife. Milosevic says he immediately switched to what he calls "Army mode" and charged at Samantha, knocking the knife from her hands and moving to detain her as if she were an enemy combatant.
Prosecutors in Bemidji, Minn., charged Milosevic with felony domestic assault and he pleaded guilty.
But here's where Milosevic's story diverges from that of most defendants. A Beltrami County judge agreed not to enter the guilty plea in exchange for Milosevic getting treatment. He says that's when he began to turn his life around.
"It started off with me going to the VA and swallowing a lot of my pride, and really accepting that I am broken," he said. "There is something that's wrong necessarily with me that I need to deal with. And I do have some unresolved combat trauma. And I really started to deal with that, and it wasn't easy."
Milosevic avoided a felony conviction. He went to college on the GI Bill, and he and Samantha are raising children together.
Milosevic is also advocating for others who found themselves on the wrong side of the law as a result of combat trauma. At the St. Paul forum, he told a group of attorneys and lawmakers that all veterans deserve the same second chance that he got.
Brock Hunter, who was Milosevic's defense attorney, co-founded the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit pushing for new legislation that would improve how Minnesota courts treat defendants who served in the military. Hunter — an Army veteran himself — says there are many inconsistencies in how cases are resolved.
"In some veterans courts, the veterans were given an opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction if they did everything expected of them. And in other counties, they could do everything expected and they still walked away with a criminal conviction that seriously impaired their ability to fully reintegrate back into their communities," he said.
Hunter says the disparities between jurisdictions have been so stark that the Minnesota public defender's office pulled its attorneys from most of the state's dozen veterans courts.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput says the proposed legislation, dubbed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, would allow defendants in counties without veterans courts to get the same kind of services available elsewhere in Minnesota.
Orput says 40 people have gone through the veterans court in his county and all have remained crime-free.
"It's a path to redemption, that's what I focus on," he said. "And you don't get redeemed if you walk out of court with a felony."