About eight months ago, the Sanford-based anti-domestic-violence organization Caring Unlimited launched a court-monitoring program that placed observers in York County courtrooms to take notes on domestic-violence case proceedings. The goal was to eventually publish those observations, to show the legal fallout from domestic-assault incidents, and perhaps even to force systemic change.
Such a compilation of anecdotes would "shed light on the tone, speed, and outcome of domestic-violence casework in York County," I wrote last year (see "Stopping Abuse," October 16, 2009).
"We were hearing from victims of domestic violence that they weren't really happy with the way things were happening in court," community response coordinator Sherry Edwards told me at the time. Caring Unlimited's Court Monitoring Project Report, released this month, indicates that those victims' concerns were not unfounded.
The six-page document suggests, among other things, that bail conditions for alleged abusers are too lenient; that the role of the Victim Witness Advocate (whose job is to support and counsel victims and witnesses of domestic abuse) is ill-defined; that courtroom security is too lax; that judges and lawyers alike could benefit from more sensitivity and "advanced training on the dynamics of domestic abuse;" and that "drop-down charges" (in which serious charges are dismissed and replaced by less-serious ones — i.e., a felony charge is dropped down to a misdemeanor) are prevalent. And there's not a lot of uniformity in sentencing. "The data clearly demonstrated that . . . Defendants experience less serious consequences in Superior Court than they do in Biddeford District Court," Edwards writes, pointing out that DV charges were dismissed in Superior Court at a rate of 36.2 percent, as opposed to 19.8 percent in Biddeford. (The district and superior courts handle different types of cases; these are anecdotal numbers as opposed to statistical condemnations.)
The report does acknowledge that "our data should be seen for what it is, the observations of lay people working to shed light on an extremely complex system," and also speaks to the "drastic cuts" in the York County district attorney's office — cuts that came around the same time the monitoring began.
Caring Unlimited puts forth 12 recommendations "regarding how the system might change to maximize abuser accountability as a means for increasing victim safety." For example, "motions to amend bail to allow full contact should be denied" in situations of repeat abuse.
The report also recommends expanded use of the risk-assessment tool called ODARA, a program developed in Canada to help police officers identify possible repeat domestic abusers. The Saco Police Department implemented ODARA, a 13-question matrix that pinpoints a perpetrator's danger level, last summer. Deputy Chief Charles Labonte says "the payback is tremendous."
"It certainly has helped our officers get a better perspective," he says. "It prompts us to be more vigilant in our follow up . . . We pay a whole lot more attention with someone who scores high. There are a lot of things we never would have asked before."
Police officers from Biddeford and York learned to use ODARA last week, and Caring Unlimited suggests that "more law enforcement agencies and all DA's staff and judges should be trained in the use of this tool and it should be routinely used in the courtroom," by lawyers who present ODARA scores and by judges who understand what they mean.