Monday, July 7, 2008

Home (Not So) Sweet Home

by Donna Pendergast

The precise statistics for incidence of domestic violence in America are difficult to determine. When violence is between intimates rather than strangers, factors such as family dynamics, shame, and fear of reprisals all result in substantial under reporting to the police.

When domestic violence is reported not only is there disagreement as to what should be included in the definition of domestic violence, but there is disagreement on who should be defined as a victim as well.

Domestic violence victims can come from far larger groups of persons than the traditional spouse or former spouse that most persons automatically think of. Romantic and sexual partners, gay and lesbian couples, children and persons with a child in common all may fit into the definition of who is considered to be a victim of domestic violence.

What is known is that the numbers of victims are staggering. The
Center for Disease Control estimates that domestic violence affects more than 32 million Americans or more than 10% of the population.

A critical issue in the
criminal justice system has long been how to address the problem of domestic violence most effectively. How to improve the judicial response to domestic violence while addressing the needs and problems of families who suffer from the abuse.

Over the past decade or so an innovative solution has emerged to deal with problems and issues related to domestic violence. Specialized Domestic Violence Courts have been created that utilize a a particularized approach in domestic violence prosecutions to prevent further violence. Domestic Violence Courts are designed to improve victim safety, enhance defendant accountability, and ensure quick and consistent responses to domestic violence while addressing the unique needs and concerns of the victims of domestic violence.

The Elements of a Domestic Violence Court

The makeup of a domestic violence court and the level of specialization varies widely between geographic areas depending upon need and resources. There are, howeverr, elements that remain consistent in the makeup of a successful Domestic Violence Court. In most Domestic Violence Courts the caseload is handled by a judge
dedicated solely to that type of case and a specialized court staff who work together to coordinate the criminal justice system's response to domestic violence and address the specialized needs of victims. Victim's Advocates, Prosecutors, and often Social Workers are all specially trained to respond to the special needs of victims and children.

In Domestic Violence Courts the same judge presides over the case from arraignment through disposition. Should there be future incidents of violence the file returns to the original judge as well. This results in informed, educated judicial decision-making and allows for intensive judicial monitoring of batterers to ensure compliance with the terms of sentence and probation. It also enables judges to respond swiftly to probation violators.

Creating a situation where the judge is in a position to exert power over the situation and take power away from the abuser helps deter recidivism. Repeat offenders know that they will end up in front of the same judge where it will be increasingly more difficult to deny or minimize culpability. A fast response time also prevents problems from escalating and sends a strong message to defendants that they are being watched.

Recognition that this is a social as well as a criminal problem mandates that Domestic Violence Courts give early access to victim advocacy and social services including food shelter and emergency services.

Victims often face complicated issues including economic dependency and children's needs. Victim advocates guide the victims through the criminal justice system, explain court proceedings, provide safety planning, direct victims to resources like civil legal assistance and otherwise help navigate victims through an unfamiliar and often confusing criminal justice system.

Victim advocates also keep victims apprised of the progress of the case as it proceeds through the criminal justice system.

The assignment of domestic violence cases to a specialized calendar sometimes known as a "
rocket docket" allows for a quick resolution of court proceedings. This fast-track calendar eliminates delays that give batterers more time to press victims not to cooperate with authorities.

Responding to the challenge of domestic violence is a complex undertaking. Domestic Violence Courts help break the cycle of domestic violence through intense intervention which both empowers victims and assures justice through a coordinated community response.

Statements made in this post are my own and not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Leah said...

These programs are good but they only work for individuals who really want to change and when good DAs and Judges are working the cases.

I worked for a Judge more than 12 years ago that had a DV docket and I saw many, many individuals come through time and time again. Mostly it was for little petty crap that was more aggravating to us than anything. But, there were a few that I will always remember. One "victim" in particular was a lady who had been in four times in a nine month period with THREE different men. Now, who do you think really had the problem here and who do you think ended up in jail and paying the fines? Yup, the men did. That is until she stabbed one of them, and even then the DA was still going to send the poor man to jail [he was the father of her kids and had been to court with her twice] until a wise man wrote a newspaper article about it. The DA finally relented, but she didn't want to. Her reasoning was that she needed to be able to take care of the kids.

I am glad I got out of that business. While the system works a lot of the time, a lot of the time is doesn't and it can be pure frustration dealing with all the different attitudes and ignorance that is out there.

Donna Pendergast said...

Thanks for the comment Leah. Clearly the system doesn't always work perfectly but this is a huge step in the right direction.

Levi said...

Donna, your post was very interesting and informative. I agree with you it is a step in the right direction.

Maybe the system should do the same with child predators. As a prosecutor I'd love to hear your thoughts about that.