Reversing Violence

Posted Nov. 11, 2008, at 4:20 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:26 a.m.

Just one county in Maine is seeing a decline in domestic violence — or at least a decline in reported incidents. Although it may be difficult to say precisely why Sagadahoc County is reversing this criminal tide, there are some clues.

Steve Edmondson, the county’s domestic violence investigator, believes a key component to the success is closer monitoring of abusers. Specifically, the county has implemented a system that has a third party monitor accused abusers from the time they are bailed out of jail until their cases are finally resolved in court. That period is often when an accused abuser will threaten or retaliate against his victim, or escalate the violence to life-threatening levels.

In part because Sagadahoc County did not have it own jail for many years, Mr. Edmondson said, it began contracting with a third-party group to do what is known as bail supervision. After being bailed out, the accused abuser is assigned to meet with someone from the nonprofit Volunteers of America group, which the county pays to provide the supervision. The defendant must meet with his or her supervisor within 24 hours of release. The supervisor is able to test the defendant for violating bail conditions, such as using alcohol or drugs.

The defendant is given a pager, and when the bail supervisor contacts him or her, the defendant must appear at the Volunteers of America office the next business day. Typically, Mr. Edmondson said, the accused is asked to report to the office once or twice a week. The accused also is required to sign a contract agreeing not to have contact with the victim. And the accused must complete a six-week class called “Choices,” which teaches good decision-making skills.

If the defendant does not comply with the conditions, the bail supervisor can call law enforcement and have him or her rearrested.

“There’s an accountability, another set of eyes that’s been hugely effective,” Mr. Edmondson said. Reoffense rates have been low because of that approach.

Though the county’s contract with Volunteers of America is an added expense, “it’s less expensive to keep them out of jail,” Mr. Edmondson said.

The contracted bail supervisors are only part of the story. Mr. Edmondson also credits aggressive law enforcement and prosecution, and a cooperative health care and business community with working together to respond swiftly and unequivocally to domestic violence.

The approach used in Sagadahoc County came to the attention of state Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan when she hosted a forum on domestic violence in the area. The commissioner has held 16 such forums around the state, seeking to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what specific challenges different regions of the state face.

The commissioner was especially impressed with Sagadahoc County’s system. The contracted bail supervisors are like “drill sergeants,” she said.

It’s an approach worth replicating around the state, perhaps in one county at a time. Though state funds are not likely to be available for such initiatives, policymakers must see this spending in terms of avoided costs.

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