A Full-Court Press On Domestic Abuse

Novel program in Raleigh, N.C., brings cops, prosecutors, and judges under one roof to curb violence.

In a crowded courtroom here, county prosecutor Stephanie Jenkins is building her case - the crime, the evidence, and the motive - against a man accused of assaulting a woman. What's unusual is that she's doing it without any cooperation from the victim, relying instead on the testimony of a police officer.

Having a police officer testify in lieu of a victim was unimaginable five years ago - and it's not without controversy even today. But the practice is increasing in a number of counties and states, as part of a wholesale rethinking of how the justice system deals with violence against women.

The scene is repeated many times a day, three days a week, in this downtown Raleigh, N.C., courtroom, dedicated to hearing domestic-violence cases. Other cities - Quincy, Mass., San Diego, and Nashville, Tenn. - first tested many of the ideas now in use here, but Raleigh's Wake County is leading the effort to put them all together into one program. As such, it may be a model for other programs now in their infancy.

"Most communities still don't have these types of programs," says Esta Soler of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. "Some have a designated court, others have a special police unit, but it's rare to have everyone on board. What Wake County is doing is great."

The year-old program here addresses difficulties often encountered in domestic-violence cases. The most common stumbling block is victims who don't want to press charges or testify against their alleged assailants - as in the high-profile spouse-abuse case against pro baseball's Wilfredo Cordero, whose trial begins this week.

A comprehensive approach

What makes Wade County's domestic-violence program unusual is its comprehensiveness. From start to finish, each agency involved in domestic-violence cases sets a policy on how it will respond. All other relevant departments - from police to parole - help establish those policies, and department heads meet monthly to make improvements on the system as a whole.

"If you don't have every link in the chain, then you're not going to be successful," says the domestic court judge, Joyce Hamilton.

When someone dials 911 with a domestic complaint in Raleigh, the accuser and the alleged abuser follow a prescripted path. All 911 calls are recorded, and those tapes may end up in court as evidence. Police officers sent to the scene have received hours of training in what questions to ask, what to look for, and how to collect evidence. They know they may be called on to testify, in place of the victim, to any crimes that occurred.

Some officers are armed with Polaroid cameras to document cuts, bruises, or other signs of abuse. And police now must make arrests at the scene if there is probable cause - a stark contrast to a year ago when 90 percent of all arrest warrants came from victims.

The day after an incident, one of three police officers from the domestic-violence unit makes a followup visit. These officers may talk further with victims about what happened, encourage them to press charges, or tell them of programs and other available help.

In the meantime, alleged assailants face arraignment in the county's domestic-violence court - the most visible part of the new policy. Before January 1997, the cases would have landed in misdemeanor court - where a hodgepodge of traffic violations, driving-under-the-influence charges, and various assault charges are heard. Now, the same judge and county prosecutor hear all domestic-violence cases.

For Ms. Jenkins, the assistant district attorney who tries the suspects, the changes give these cases the time they deserve. "Before," she says, "you'd be standing there with 40 DUIs and two family-violence cases." If the two abuse victims didn't want to press charges, "it was real easy to give them [a social service agency] phone number and close the case. With special court, that's not an option."

Sentencing is different, too, under the new guidelines. A standard sentence for a first-time offender is to enter a 26-week, social-service program for batterers. There are separate services for men and women batterers.

Studies show the programs help stop violence better than jail time would. One three-year study found that only 12 percent of those who had been through the batterers' program reoffended. "If we're not going to be able to order a program that will change behavior, then we ought to go back to what we were doing before, which was nothing," Judge Hamilton says.

In the latest improvement, one parole officer is assigned all domestic-violence cases, an effort to better track whether abusers are attending the programs they were ordered to.

Complaints of critics

Critics contend that Wake County is focusing too many resources on this one crime. In addition to the cost of the training and special units, police officers now spend hours in court waiting to testify - some of which used to be spent on the beat.

But Raleigh police officials counter that crime as a whole can be reduced if offenders get treatment or are put behind bars. Some communities that have had domestic-violence police units in place longer than Raleigh have documented a drop in the murder rate.

"Once you get offenders into the judicial system, there may be a lot of other problems they have that can be addressed," says Fannie Montagne, Raleigh police department's victim advocate.

Other critics ask whether a conviction is legal when the victim has refused to face the accused. "I don't think a statement that someone made to police at the scene should come in as evidence," says defense attorney George Barrett. "I don't think it's reliable. When people are mad, they can say anything. When they're under oath, they have calmed down."

Defense attorneys have also complained that a close relationship develops between a judge and a prosecutor who work together every day in court. Some argue that having one judge hear so many similar cases makes it impossible for her to judge each case on its own merits. But so far, no higher courts have ruled against the procedures.

The people perhaps most startled by the new procedures are the accused. Many, because of societal messages or cultural backgrounds, genuinely feel they have done nothing that warrants going to jail.

"I don't need this," says one abuser, ordered to take part in the county's Domestic Offenders Sentenced to Education "I don't fight women. I'm the one who called the police and they lock me up? She pushed me, and I just held her off me. I pled guilty to get the case over with. I've got to get back to work."

Supporters of the new approach, though, say that altering the boundaries for what is considered acceptable behavior between men and women is an important aspects of the new policy. When couples deal with their problems in a nonviolent way, children will not be exposed to violence at an early age.

"People talk about the ultimate goal of this being to reduce the murder rate," says Hamilton. "That's a wonderful goal, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here for the kids."

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