Judging the courts on domestic violence

S.A. Troy writes for the Vermont Guardian in a series of articles that examine the complex nature of domestic abuse. This week, the criminal justice system is at the center of attention. The criminal justice system has three primary responsibilities, according to Judge Amy Davenport, chief administrative judge for the state: Keeping victims and communities safe, holding offenders accountable, and providing opportunity for offender rehabilitation.

However, there is a general consensus among key members of Vermont’s criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, corrections officials, and victims’ advocates, that while there is critical role to be played by the criminal justice system, without the community-at-large reinforcing the idea that domestic violence is not tolerated, they say it’s a war that can’t be won.

Yet the questions remain: What is the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence, and is it succeeding?

Domestic violence laws in Vermont

According to the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (the Network), before 1980 there were no laws specifically protecting victims of domestic violence.

In the past 27 years, many laws have been passed, but three are said to have made the largest impact in terms of increasing the numbers of offenders coming into the legal system.

In 1990, violating a relief from abuse order became a crime — the first offense is a misdemeanor, and subsequent violations are felonies. When caught the first time, offenders can be ordered to participate in domestic abuse counseling.

In 1993, the Legislature passed a law criminalizing domestic assault and stalking. Domestic assault is defined as attempting to cause a family or household member bodily injury, or causing the member physical harm, or willfully causing the member to fear imminent serious bodily injury.

Depending on the severity of the assault and whether a weapon was used, an offender may be charged with a misdemeanor domestic assault or first or second degree aggravated domestic assault, which are felonies. A unique aspect to domestic assault is that once convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault, the next time a defendant is charged, even if it’s for another misdemeanor assault charge, the prosecutor can enhance the charge to a felony.

In perhaps one of the most sweeping changes of all, a process which began in 1985 and was expanded in 2002, criminal procedures were enhanced to allow law enforcement to arrest an individual for misdemeanor domestic assault even if the event occurred prior to the officer’s arrival on scene as long as there is sufficient evidence.

These laws, along with tougher penalties on driving under the influence (DUI) that also came into force during this time, resulted in an enormous increase of offenders finding their way into the courts.

According to Susan Onderwyzer, program services executive for Vermont Department of Corrections, from 1990-2005, the volume of overall sentencing increased 72 percent.

Law enforcement – the first line of defense In 1993, Vermont became the first state to provide specific domestic violence (DV) training to all full-time police officers. Today, according to TJ Anderson, coordinator of training services for the Vermont Police Academy, 43 out of 700 hours are spent on DV and DV-related subjects, such as vulnerable adult abuse, sexual assault, child abuse, and stalking.

Yet, according to a report released by the National Center for Women and Policing, domestic violence crimes account for up to 40 percent of all calls to police, and one-third of all law enforcement’s time.

“Currently part-time officers are not required to take any DV training and officers are also not required to take any additional DV training to maintain their certification after their initial training has been completed,” notes Anderson.

The wide reach of domestic violence is also reflected in the state’s crime statistics.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of violent death in Vermont. As reported in the 2007 State of Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission Report, 49 percent of all homicides from 1994-2006 were domestic violence related. Adding in the number of suicides that followed, the percentage increases to 61 percent.

Sgt. Jeff Fontaine, a 27-year veteran of the Colchester police department, characterized the change in law enforcement’s attitude toward domestic violence as having made huge strides. When he started and officers were called to a home where domestic violence was suspected, the standard procedure was to separate the couple, sending one to a neighbor to cool off. Now with mandates to arrest the dominant aggressor, the shift has gone from “trying to put a Band-Aid on a situation to actually thinking it can change,” said Fontaine.

Police officers now refer victims to services and follow-up with them directly for welfare checks. Many counties have special domestic violence investigators that serve on the state’s attorneys’ prosecution team.

When Bill Northrup retired from the state police after 27 years of service, 12 of which were as a detective, he decided he wasn’t ready to call it a day. For the last 10 years, Northrup has served as Franklin County’s special DV investigator. Like Fontaine, Northrup said in the early 1980’s police treated domestic calls as a family matter where the police were reluctant to get involved. In the late 1980’s, the police started to approach DV as a criminal matter, and the force became more proactive. In the early 1990’s, Northrup, along with Scot Kline in the Chittenden County State’s Attorneys office, drafted the domestic violence protocol for Chittenden County that then became standard for the state.

From his years as a detective, Northrup knew how serious and pervasive a problem domestic violence was in Vermont. “Most of the homicides and serious assault cases I investigated were domestic related.”