Judge Jill Falstad initiated one of the first domestic violence compliance courts in the state. The goal: Hold offenders accountable and keep victims safer
Falstad says that it’s important judges impose additional sanctions if necessary to make sure offenders are following through.
Why isn’t he going to treatment? Why can’t something be done about it? Can anything change his behavior?
Jane Graham Jennings has heard these questions too many times to count. As the executive director of The Women’s Community in Wausau, Graham Jennings has more than 20 years of experience working with victims of domestic violence.
Too often victims reel with frustration as they see their abuser violate the terms of their probation or court agreement with no repercussions. Too often offenders commit the same crimes they were once charged with.
All those problems are being addressed now that Marathon County became just the second county in Wisconsin to set up a domestic violence compliance court. The program, which began May 1, puts a backbone into the system when it comes to cracking down on offenders who disobey the conditions of their sentencing.
“We hear from victims all the time right now who tell us the person who victimized them is not doing what they’re supposed to and it doesn’t matter. They get away with whatever they want and no one is going to do anything,” Graham Jennings says. “This is just going to add some additional oversight or accountability so hopefully victims will feel the criminal justice system is a little more reliable and so they feel safe.”
The court involves periodic hearings for offenders in front of a judge. The judge will hear from a probation officer on whether or not the offender is adhering to the stipulations of their conviction or deferred agreement. And importantly, these additional compliance hearings will go before the same judge who handled the original case.
Conditions typically might included a no-contact order with the victim or a requirement to attend SAFE (Stopping Abuse For Everyone) program, and alcohol and drug abuse treatment with Peaceful Solutions, a counseling center in Wausau that for many years has run programs for domestic violence offenders.
Whatever the conditions, the offender must now answer to a judge, and face the court’s power to pass additional sanctions. Previously, offenders reported to a probation and parole officer, whose only recourse was, and is, to put them in jail for a probation violation “hold.” But that rarely has happened in the past several, largely because of overcrowding at the Marathon County Jail.
“If someone continues to miss therapy sessions and the system doesn’t respond immediately, then we’re really teaching them that their crime isn’t that serious… they can get away with it,” says Todd Werner, co-executive director at Peaceful Solutions. “That’s the wrong message to send.”
Werner and co-executive director Lee Shipway have 58 years combined experience treating domestic violence offenders here and in other counties. Only in the last four years have they seen a problem with offenders not showing up for SAFE treatment, a counseling and education program aimed at preventing the cycle of violence.
Todd Werner and Lee Shipway of Peaceful Solutions: “If someone continues to miss therapy sessions and the system doesn’t respond immediately, then we’re really teaching them that their crime isn’t that serious,” Werner says.
Before the domestic violence compliance court, there wasn’t much Werner and Shipway could do to make sure offenders attended their initial intakes and subsequent group therapy sessions. They could inform the probation officer of absences, but that only went so far.
“The probation officers could do some kind of a sanction, when the jail wasn’t overcrowded,” Shipway says. “[The offenders] would be in jail for 24 hours—that got people’s attention real quick. When that wasn’t an option anymore, we didn’t have any consequence for someone skipping.”
Does Marathon County have a bigger problem with domestic violence?
One in three women and one in four men in the U.S. will experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lives, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Last year in Marathon County there were 461 arrests for intimate partner domestic violence, according to statistics compiled by the Women’s Community. And since 2006, eight people (all women) were killed by their partners, according to the nonprofit End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.
Overall in the state, the most recent statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Justice in 2012 show 28,729 domestic violence incidents statewide (that includes all domestic incidents, not just between intimate partners).
Because counties don’t all report domestic violence incidents the same way, it’s difficult to know whether Marathon County has a bigger problem than other parts of the state. But what local observers do see is a big local problem with the number of reoffenders.
Kory Kleinschmidt sees four to six repeat domestic violence offenders go through court every week. As the Women’s Community Transitional Living Program legal advocate, he pays close attention to the individuals going through the court system, and is frustrated to see the same names over and over again.
Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad says that every county has a problem with domestic violence, but, “We seem to have a high volume of it here,” Falstad says. “It’s frustrating to see reoffenders.”
One possible explanation is that law enforcement and the courts are intervening much earlier than they did a few decades ago, thanks to changing attitudes domestic violence.
When Werner and Shipway worked with offenders in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the people in their programs knew the violence they were committing was wrong largely because their assaults had escalated so far and had gone on for so long.
Shipway says offenders in the SAFE Program back then didn’t have enough fingers on both hands to indicate the number of times they committed violent acts against a partner.
When each domestic violence offender is brought into Peaceful Solutions, they go through a risk assessment test, where they answer questions about the physical and non-physical violence they have committed. That could include giving the cold shoulder and yelling at or verbally abusing her, all the way up to slapping, kicking punching, using a weapon or trying to strangle her.
The number of checkmarks on those behaviors and how many times they occurred over the years is what classifies an someone as a low or high-risk offender. A low-risk offender goes through 18 weeks of group therapy while a high-risk offender is 30 weeks.
Years ago, “They would have 20 to 100 times more responses, whether it be punching, pushing, or kicking,” Shipway says. “Actually, it was easier to do the groups 30 years ago because the men in those groups knew they had a problem and they wanted change; it had just gone on for so long.”
Today’s mandatory arrest policy means “we’re getting them much sooner,” she says. The result is fewer murders and severe physical injuries. But to offenders pulled in before the violence has escalated to a brutal degree, “From a psychological perspective, it’s harder to get someone to see it’s an issue.”
That is where the compliance court comes in. At the start of 2016, grant money was made available for each county in Wisconsin to set up a domestic violence compliance court. Only Marathon County and St. Croix County jumped at the opportunity.
Judge Falstad led the charge to create the court in Wausau. She attended a national conference in Chicago that trained her on the set up. Then she brought into the process the public defender’s office, district attorney’s office, Peaceful Solutions and The Women’s Community—every one of these offices plays a role in making the program work.
Falstad travelled to Milwaukee County last year with attorney Suzanne O’Neill and a probation supervisor to see the only other domestic violence compliance court in action. With a population of nearly 1 million, Milwaukee County has a court that exclusively handles domestic violence cases.
It impressed Falstad to see how effectively and immediately a compliance court could handle uncooperative offenders. She described a case where the offender said he didn’t have a car to get to his job, yet his car was always outside of the victim’s workplace. It turns out he was stalking her, so the judge immediately sentenced him to 60 days in jail because his behaviors were so frightening and the judge wanted to make sure the victim was safe.
“The biggest thing I learned is to make sure you review the reports ahead of time, know ahead what you’re going to talk with that offender about, and impose that sanction if it’s necessary to make sure offenders are following through,” Falstad says.
What will change?
Jane Graham Jennings, with Women’s Community staffer Laura Cynkar in the counseling room: “We hear from victims all the time right now who tell us the person who victimized them is not doing what they’re supposed to and it doesn’t matter. They get away with whatever they want and no one is going to do anything.”
So let’s say a man gets convicted of misdemeanor battery against his wife, and is sentenced to two years of probation.
What steps does that offender go through then?
First, he meets with a probation agent before stepping outside of the courthouse to create a plan for follow ups and to arrange for an intake with Peaceful Solutions. The risk assessment done at that intake determines the level of therapy an offender must complete.
The difference now is that judges will step in throughout the therapy process to make sure an offender is following through with treatment and other conditions, and to hold periodic courtroom reviews with the offender as determined during a sentencing hearing.
Offenders can’t just show up for the treatments, instead they must be a willing participant in the SAFE Program. “I’ve heard stories of offenders who show up and their idea of participating is to say, ‘ Hi, I’m here,’” Falstad says.
Therapy is more successful than not when the offender actually engages in their sessions, say Werner and Shipway.
Werner and Shipway have collected statistics on the number of people who go through the SAFE Program and reoffend ever since they started working for the program more than 25 years ago. They say the SAFE Program ranges from 92% to 96% successful in preventing reoffenders. Werner and Shipway check on offenders 12 months post-treatment and again at 24 months.
(Although the stats give the impression that treatment programs do their intended work, offenders aren’t necessarily “cured.” “Just because they haven’t been re-arrested doesn’t mean they’re not still being controlling. What we’ve found in interviews with victims is that physical abuse will stop, but the verbal abuse increases,” Shipway says.)
Other places now are looking to Marathon County’s domestic violence compliance court as a model, and inspiring other counties with the idea of setting up something similar. Falstad was asked to speak about it at a district judges conference in May, and several judges her they want to “put this model into practice in their counties,” Falstad says. “The point is to give backbone to the whole process.”