I have little doubt that the lawmakers who decided that some veterans should get lenient treatment in the court system had nothing but good intentions. Unfortunately, good intentions can lead to really terrible laws.
No one is quite ready to call the state’s “Valor Act” a lousy law, but it’s drawing a backlash. And no wonder. Late last year, a New Bedford man who allegedly assaulted his girlfriend saw the case against him disappear after a District Court judge invoked the law. That followed a Suffolk County case in which a ROTC graduate who hadn’t even gone on active service faced no penalty for an alcohol-fueled binge in which he was accused of pushing a woman off a bicycle — leaving her with a concussion.
This is not how the law was supposed to work. The Valor Act was intended to give District Court judges leeway in adjudicating cases involving military veterans. Its compassionate rationale was that veterans who return home bearing psychological and physical scars that can lead to antisocial behavior can be better served through treatment rather than jail time. The law creates a mechanism for such judges — who typically handle less serious offenses — to “divert” cases away from punishment and into programs.
Diversion in an increasingly common way to deal with a range of nonviolent offenses, a trend I generally support.
But a growing chorus of critics believes the Valor Law allows too much discretion — an argument that gains a lot of traction with the latest disclosures.
“It gives judges too much discretion to apply it in ways that I think the Legislature never intended,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley. “This is no knock against veterans. But I don’t think it was ever intended to apply to people who never saw service in a theater of conflict. It wasn’t intended as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
The New Bedford case raised a host of issues about the way the law is applied. The defendant, Allan T. Santos, had been charged with assaulting his girlfriend. Though the Valor Act is supposed to be applied before a suspect is arraigned, a judge applied the law at a later stage — also choosing to vacate the case, so there is effectively no court record of it. By the way, his military service was in the 1980s. It’s anyone’s guess whether it had anything to do with the offense for which he was charged.
Part of the problem with the law, critics say, is that there is no record of how often it is applied, or for what. In theory, Conley notes, it could be invoked for the same defendant over and over again.
Lawmakers have indicated support for overhauling the law. State Senator Michael Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat and the original sponsor of the bill, said in a statement that he is in favor of changes.
There are a couple of obvious places to start. The law should probably not apply to most violent crimes. Carjackers or domestic abusers shouldn’t walk free because they served the country at some point.
Also, if the idea is to secure treatment for those who need it — again, a worthy goal — then those who are allowed to invoke the act should be required to complete significant treatment. Those changes would begin to bring a bad law back in line with its stated purpose.
State Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, told me he believes the flaws in the law will be addressed.
But the law in its present form cannot stand. Compassion must be balanced with justice. Right now, justice is not being served.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.