Report: Few domestic violence cases reach trial in ToledoWritten by Brian Bohnert | | firstname.lastname@example.org
According to a new report, of the nearly 1,600 domestic violence cases seen by Toledo Municipal Court in 2011, 79 percent were completely dismissed or reduced to lesser charges while just 2 percent actually went to trial.
Rebecca Facey, executive director and co-founder of Independent Advocates (IA), which released the report, said most domestic violence cases in Lucas County are dismissed because the alleged victims often stop coming to court. Because the prosecution relies on the victim to come to court and testify, Facey said it is important that the court system becomes more consistent from judge to judge to ensure that the victims are encouraged to show up.
“The prosecution relies on the victim to show up in court and testify and, if they don’t, the court doesn’t have a case,” Facey said. “I can say as an advocate having worked with women, their primary goal when they call the police is for the violence that is happening right now to stop. When they come to court, they’re looking for the person to be held accountable so that it doesn’t happen again, and so that the person just doesn’t get away with it. But unfortunately, the message both the victims and defendants are getting is that, ‘If you can get the victim not to come to court, the case goes away.’”
This is a problem Facey said is caused by the stress of lengthy, draining court proceedings as well as fear and intimidation by the abuser. She said pressing charges against people the victims know and love is emotionally draining and takes a toll on them and their families, often leading to them not coming to court.
“It’s because of the intimate partner relationship that’s involved in these particular crimes,” Facey said. “It’s very different than being assaulted by someone random on the street that you have no ties to and that you have no problem putting in jail. It’s very difficult to admit to yourself, the court and the community that this relationship is violent and that you’ve been hurt by the person that you love and you care about, and that you thought felt the same.”
Independent Advocates, a grassroots, social change organization dedicated to “improving the community’s response to domestic violence,” released the Domestic Violence Court Watch Report 2011 on May 15. The 12-page report compiled a year’s worth of data and observations examining all criminal domestic violence cases seen by Toledo Municipal Court in 2011. More than 30 volunteers were placed in courtrooms of each of the seven judges as part of the Domestic Violence Court Watch Program. While sitting in on domestic violence cases, the volunteers observed and documented proceedings in “pre-trials, trials, sentencing hearings, and probation violations,” according to the report.
The report offers charts showing sentencing and conviction data in the courts of all seven judges in Toledo Municipal Court. The report states that there are many inconsistencies from judge to judge when it comes to how many domestic violence cases go to trial and how often the judges have sentenced alleged abusers.
According to one of those charts, Judge Amy J. Berling saw 272 domestic violence cases in 2011. One went to trial and 71 abusers were sentenced. Judge Timothy C. Kuhlman saw 216 cases with nine going to trial and 67 abusers sentenced. Once an abuser is convicted, Facey said the inconsistencies become more shocking when looking at how differently each judge sentences abusers.
In 2011, the report shows that Kuhlman sentenced fewer than 20 percent of convicted abusers to imposed jail time while more than 80 percent were sentenced to probation. Judge William M. Connelly Jr. sentenced nearly 40 percent of alleged abusers to jail time while sentencing more than 80 percent to probation. Sentences can include combinations of jail time, probation and a batterer’s intervention program.
Facey said inconsistent handling of domestic violence cases in the courtroom is due to seven different judges each with their own methods. She said the problems with domestic violence cases in the court system could be solved if Toledo Municipal Court had its own specialized docket designed for domestic violence cases.
Such a docket, proposed in IA’s Court Watch Report, would work similar to Toledo Municipal Court’s existing housing docket, with a designated staff trained to handle only domestic violence cases, she said.
“A lot of other communities across the country have implemented domestic violence dockets: a dedicated domestic violence court with one trained staff,” Facey said. “So one judge, one prosecutor and one probation officer would all be really well-versed in the dynamics of domestic violence and prepared to respond to these cases with time and thoughtfulness, and the attention they deserve.”
Amanda Kern, a licensed social worker, was brought in as a graduate student at the University of Toledo to work with professor Celia Williamson on a report designed to lay the groundwork for a proposed dedicated docket similar to the one IA is advocating.
The report highlights the successes other U.S. court systems are having with similar dockets, and offers a detailed plan highlighting every aspect of the docket’s development from staffing and cost to operation and even a detailed timeline starting Oct. 1, 2012, and ending Jan. 1, 2014. Kern said the court’s main questions regarding the proposed docket were cost and effectiveness.
“I had to do research about how this plan would look and how it would operate,” Kern said. “The judges wanted to see outcome measures and results for other places that have implemented a docket similar to this one But everything relied on having a judge’s input and feedback to determine what they are looking for. The only cost we could find would be a full-time probation officer, which would be under $80,000.”
Facey said IA released the Court Watch Report to show the court that something needs to be done to make victims of domestic violence more comfortable when they are going through a “very tough procedure.”
“It’s a very sad and very emotional dynamic and it’s something that the court needs to be able to understand, and be fluid in those dynamics to be able to have a better response so that more people are coming to court, more people feel comfortable and safe to prosecute and to take things to trial,” Facey said. “I don’t need to see every case found guilty, I would just like to see every case get to the point of being able to be tried on its merits.”
Toledo Free Press sought comments from judges Kuhlman, Connelly and Michelle A. Wagner. Calls were not returned by press time.
To download a copy of the IA Domestic Violence Court Watch Report 2011, visit www.iatoledo.org.