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Judicial Oversight and Reducing Pretrial Domestic Violence

Date Published
July 31, 2009

A critical issue in domestic violence cases is the risk of continued victimization during the pretrial period. Offenders may violate no-contact orders, further injure victims, or intimidate them.

To minimize these risks, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women and NIJ initiated the Judicial Oversight Demonstration, a field test that asked:

  • Judges to take a more active role in managing domestic violence cases before trial.
  • Sites to dedicate courts or days to processing domestic violence cases only.
  • Sites to expand services for domestic violence victims.
  • Courts to monitor defendants before trial and respond to violations with penalties.

In partnership with a number of court-related partners, judges oversaw all aspects of the case, from hearings to sanctions and treatment programs given to batterers. Courts in three locations — Dorchester, Mass.; Milwaukee, Wisc.; and Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Mich. — participated in the field test.

Participating communities worked to achieve three objectives:

  • Provide consistent responses to domestic violence offenses. Police departments created pro-arrest policies and arrested the primary aggressor at the crime scene.
  • Coordinate victim advocacy and services. Victim advocates worked with law enforcement and the court to contact the victim quickly after an incident, develop a safety plan for the victim, and provide treatment services.
  • Enforce strong offender accountability and monitoring. Courts carefully supervised arrestees, referred them to intervention programs, and instituted penalties if arrestees violated the terms of their probation.

Evaluating the Judicial Oversight Demonstration

NIJ and the Urban Institute collaborated to evaluate how the JOD initiative affected domestic violence investigations at the three demonstration sites.

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Benefits of Implementing a Pretrial Safety Program for Victims of Domestic Violence

Researchers evaluating the Judicial Oversight Demonstration[1] found that it:

  • Improved victim services and well-being. The Judicial Oversight Demonstration increased community-based victim services. Victims:
    • Felt satisfied with the response of police, prosecutors and the court.
    • Felt pleased with the quality of nongovernmental organization services.
    • Felt that the project would help stop future violence.
    • Reported moderately high levels of safety and well-being 11 months after the incident.
  • Increased offender accountability and changed perceptions. The Judicial Oversight Demonstration increased offender accountability. Offenders in the program:
    • Had more probation requirements than comparison offenders at non-JOD sites.
    • Had a better understanding of the legal process in Dorchester.
    • Complied with court orders to report to probation and batterer intervention programs more frequently than comparison offenders.
    • Were given harsher penalties for violations of some court-ordered requirements. These penalties were enforced more frequently than with comparison offenders.
  • Decreased revictimization. Revictimization decreased in the following ways:
    • In Massachusetts, victims reported lower rates of repeat intimate partner violence.
    • Offenders reported very low rates of repeat intimate partner violence.
    • Offenders who felt the legal system would penalize them for new offenses had lower rates of repeat intimate partner violence.

    The Judicial Oversight Demonstration was best able to reduce revictimization when:

    • The offender was young (age 18 to 29).
    • The offender had a high number of prior arrests (seven or more).
    • The victim and offender did not have children together.
    • Victims were moderately or well supported by their social networks.
    • The victim and offender had been in a relationship for less than three years.

The researchers that evaluated the Judicial Oversight Demonstration[2] made the following suggestions for future research, policy discussions and practice on domestic violence safety:

  • The Judicial Oversight Demonstration model is feasible and beneficial to justice agencies.
  • Better coordination between partner agencies leads to improved offender accountability and greater consistency in sanctioning and sentencing.
  • Referrals to batterer intervention programs do not help reduce intimate partner (domestic) violence. Justice systems should instead focus on protecting victims by monitoring offenders and quickly responding to violations with penalties.
  • Courts need to improve training for judges and other individuals and organizations that interact with victims.
  • Courts need to improve evidence collection systems and adopt systematic investigation methods.
  • Courts and community organizations should provide services that address all issues in the victims' lives beyond the realm of the court case (e.g., victims may need mental health care or employment programs).
  • Courts and community organizations need to create better housing options for victims, and better counseling and services options for children.
  • Offenders given probation may need specialized services to keep them motivated to comply with probation requirements (e.g., employment programs, and better scheduling options for services and appointments with parole officers).

Implementing a Pretrial Safety Program for Victims of Domestic Violence

Strategies That Helped Courts Implement Pretrial Safety

Researchers evaluating the Judicial Oversight Demonstration[3] found that:

  • A full-time project director organized meetings and planning sessions.
  • Procedures for obtaining a protection order were expedited.
  • Judges regularly reviewed batterers' compliance with the terms of their probation.
  • Planning sessions helped to efficiently modify the court system and coordinate community responses to domestic violence.
  • Each project began with a core group of partner agencies and expanded to include a wide network of partnerships with community organizations and treatment facilities.
  • Judges, attorneys and law enforcement officers attended special training sessions with experts in domestic violence.
  • Staff worked exclusively on domestic violence cases and became specialists in handling these kinds of cases.

Changes Made When Implementing Pretrial Safety

As part of the Judicial Oversight Demonstration, communities made changes to ensure victim safety during the pretrial period. Although many jurisdictions restrict offender and victim contact before trial, these conditions are often violated by offenders and violations can go unpunished.

Demonstration sites made the following changes:

Enhanced role of judges. Judges in all communities were asked to increase their involvement in cases, and when possible, oversee a case from start to finish. Additionally:

  • Each site organized additional education and training programs for judges.
  • Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor) developed formal protocols for conducting arraignments.
  • Milwaukee assigned judges to a domestic violence court for a 2-year term.

Changes to court processes. Two sites dedicated courts or docket days to domestic violence cases. The third site already had three specialized domestic violence courts in place and added a fourth. Courts also:

  • Asked prosecutors to expand their use of evidence.
  • Recommended best practices that prosecutors could use to make their cases stronger.
  • Expedited procedures for protection order hearings.
  • Regularly scheduled judicial review of probation compliance.
  • Required police officers to have experience in working with domestic violence cases.

Increased monitoring of offenders. Two sites worked to monitor offenders:

  • Washtenaw County reviewed bond conditions with defendants in person and used penalties (fines and jail time) to enforce violations.
  • Milwaukee actively monitored defendants with in-person reports, home visits, and contact with victims to inquire about violations.

Expanded victim services. All sites expanded victim services:

  • Dorchester and Washtenaw County hired specialists to provide a needs assessment, information, referrals, and assistance.
  • Milwaukee created a secure space in the courthouse for victims and their children and hired specialists to provide information and refer victims for services.
  • All sites improved probation and batterer intervention services.
  • All sites worked with victims earlier in the court process.

Challenges to Making the Demonstration Work

Researchers evaluating the Judicial Oversight Demonstration found:

  • Partner agencies at the same site did not understand one another's operations. This made the coordination of prosecution and treatment programs more challenging.
  • Changes initially overburdened many of the partners and their agencies.
  • Agencies often lacked resources for expanding staff and providing training.
  • Differences in computer systems made data-sharing difficult.
  • Justice agencies and community service organizations had to accommodate clients' needs for confidentiality.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 1999-WT-VX-K005. This article is based on the reports generated under that grant.

Date Published: July 31, 2009