Legislative leaders moved Wednesday to repeal the state’s controversial Valor Act and replace it with a far more narrow measure intended to close loopholes that allowed some veterans to avoid criminal charges, including assaults on women, by citing their military service.
The changes were included in a comprehensive veterans benefits bill released late Wednesday by House and Senate negotiators, who had spent the past month working behind closed doors.
The compromise bill, which must now pass both chambers, would cut from the books the 2012 state law called the Valor Act, which gave lower court judges the discretion to send veterans to treatment programs rather than arraign them on criminal charges.
Signed by Governor Deval Patrick, it was designed to offer help to a wave of veterans returning from combat with substance abuse problems who were getting ensnared in the criminal justice system.
But the Globe revealed several cases in which men avoided — or sought to avoid — charges of assaulting women by citing the Valor Act. They included the case of a man accused of trying to strangle his girlfriend, prompting lawmakers in January to promise to change the law.
Jacqueline Boltik, a 29-year-old Boston resident who had met with legislators to offer her recommendations for changes to the law, applauded the new measure Wednesday evening. “This makes a genuine effort to get people help without just brushing things under the rug,” she said.
Boltik, according to prosecutors, was randomly assaulted in 2016 by a recent ROTC graduate of Boston College who later had his charges dismissed under the Valor Act.
“I support our veterans and want them to get the help they need,” Boltik said. “[The Valor Act] was kind of used as an excuse for bad behavior. It was generally meant to rehabilitate people. I think this provision makes a better attempt at that.”
Under the new language released Wednesday, a veteran would be considered for diversion to a treatment program only after a 30-day assessment — or more than double the 14 days allowed for nonveterans under the sweeping criminal justice reform law passed this spring that created a new diversion program for all adult defendants.
As with any adult, veterans could be diverted to treatment by a judge when facing charges of simple assault and battery, disrupting a court proceeding, and picketing a court.
But in addition, veterans or active military members also could be considered for diversion for a first-offense charge of operating under the influence, but with conditions. They must have been “clinically diagnosed” with a traumatic brain injury, substance abuse disorder, or a serious mental illness stemming from their military service, according to a summary of the bill provided by lawmakers. And a judge must consider the opinion of prosecutors before acting.
Lawmakers said the bill also includes a “safety valve” for prosecutors, who have the option to pursue a subsequent charge in superior court if they disagree with a judge’s decision to drop the charges entirely.
The bill also seeks to make other changes. Though the 2012 provision was intended only for first-time offenders, there was no tracking mechanism to ensure a veteran didn’t take advantage of it more than once.
In the new language, a probation officer must not only confirm a defendant’s status as a veteran or active member of the military, but must also ensure the defendant had never been diverted before because of his or her service.
Senator William N. Brownsberger, who sat on the conference committee that drafted the changes, said the broad criminal justice bill passed in April sought to address the “unintended consequences” of the Valor Act.
“The changes we made in this act,” he said of Wednesday’s proposal, “actually gave veterans something they no longer had, which was the ability to be diverted in a drunk driving case. And it can only be diverted once.”
The original Valor Act gave district court judges the right to drop charges against veterans who might benefit from treatment, but it also allowed for claims by veterans even if they had not served in combat, suffered trauma, or demonstrated how their service was relevant to the charges they face.
It led to a host of controversial cases, including that of a 54-year-old New Bedford man accused of assaulting and strangling his girlfriend in 2016 whose charges were dismissed after he cited his military service. He had served four years in the Navy in Hawaii in the 1980s.
Similarly, a Vietnam veteran who appeared in a New Bedford courtroom in April on charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and animal cruelty had his arraignment continued to give his attorney time to build a case that he should not be charged because he’s a veteran, according to the Globe.
At the time, Judge James McGovern said the Valor Act “was very special,” according to an audio of the proceedings. “It’s incredibly powerful.”
A different judge later declined to waive his charges.