ROCKLAND, Maine — The lack of consistency in the handling of domestic violence cases statewide is a concern to advocates for those who are subject to abuse.
“There are a lot of places where things are falling through the cracks,” said Natasha Chase, who has worked seven years at New Hope for Women in Rockland and for the past five years overseen its batterers’ intervention program called “Time for Change.”
Chase said her concerns include what she considers excessive use by the local prosecutor of a judicial process called deferred disposition in which a defendant will plead guilty to an offense but sentencing will be delayed for a period, such as a year. If the defendant does not commit any new offenses within that period, the charge is lowered. She said she also is concerned about the lack of use of the batterers’ intervention program.
The ninth report by the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel echoed some of those concerns in its statewide look at how domestic violence cases are handled.
“The panel observes that there is a lack of consistency statewide regarding the prosecutorial use of deferred disposition. This inconsistency results in a lack of standardization of conditions, and varying accountability for defendants who are on deferred disposition,” the report stated.
The panel also concluded that access to batterers’ intervention programs before sentencing should be used more statewide.
The panel’s report was published in April. The panel was created in 1997 and issued a previous report in January 2010. The volunteer panel, many of whom have been members since its creation, reviews homicide cases after their completion to come up with recommendations on how to better handle domestic violence cases.
There have been 21 domestic violence homicides in Maine from January 2010 through April 2012, according to the report.
Chase said one improvement would be for the prosecution to recommend batterer intervention programs as part of plea agreements.
There are eight people in the Time for Change program in Rockland and eight in Belfast. The numbers could be much greater, Chase said, even though they have increased from a year ago.
The course includes one class a week for 48 weeks.
“I so strongly believe that education is the key,” Chase said. “They can learn healthier ways to communicate.”
The Domestic Violence Homicide Review Panel noted that anger management counseling was inappropriate intervention for domestic violence offenders unless they clearly have impulse control problems.
“When anger management is provided as an option to an offender, it encourages the offender, the victim and others to believe that the offender’s abuse is caused by anger,” the report states. “Batterers Intervention Programs remain the best practice for the management of, or response to, batterers.”
The panel recommends that the term “domestic violence counseling” be removed from probation forms and instead the court require the defendant to attend a batterers’ intervention program.
Chase also voiced discouragement with the lack of use of the domestic violence court within the District Court system.
The domestic violence courts were started in Maine in 2002. Under this program, people convicted of domestic violence assault are required to meet on a regular basis not only with their probation officer but the judge who sentenced them. Cases are recommended in this program by the prosecution.
The Maine Judicial Department reported in 2009 that of the 11 courts in which the program operates, the caseload ranged from a low of eight in Machias and West Bath to a high of 75 in Skowhegan. The District Court in Rockland had 12 cases in the program in 2009. Portland had 59 cases and Lewiston had 20.
The judiciary no longer maintains statistics on the number of cases in the program, noted Mary Ann Lynch, who serves as government and media counsel for Maine’s judiciary branch. The position of domestic violence coordinator for the state, who had maintained those statistics, has not been filled.
Chase noted that in Rockland District Court there is only one case assigned to the domestic violence course program. That case had been transferred from Cumberland County and now is being transferred to West Bath because the defendant is moving.
District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau — who is the top prosecutor for the district that encompasses Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties — said that specialty courts such as domestic violence courts work only when there is the same judge to hear the cases each time.
He said it also has been difficult to get people into domestic violence court programs because defense attorneys are opposed to having their clients enter it.
Chase acknowledged the difficulty, saying that some clients will agree to a jail term rather than to have to meet even once a month with a judge and miss time from work.
Even when someone is in the domestic violence court program, it does not work effectively, she said.
She cited the one current case in the Rockland court program. She said the defendant appeared in court last week and has been accused of a probation violation. Chase said the judge refused to impose any sanction on the defendant because he had no attorney present. Chase said the court should have an attorney available for these court appearances so that a judge can take action when someone has violated terms of their sentencing.
Alan Kelley, who is acting district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, noted that he makes use of domestic violence courts. There are 140 cases in the Augusta court, 40 in Waterville and 25 to 30 in the Skowhegan court.
“Our goal is to get cases into domestic violence courts,” Kelley said.
Kelley said while there have been no hard statistics on how effective it is, he feels it is worthwhile.
The prosecutor said he also makes use of deferred dispositions but often when that is recommended it also calls for defendants to participate in a batterers’ intervention program.
Detective Dwight Burtis, who is the domestic violence officer for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in Rockland, said he does not support the use of deferred dispositions in any cases involving violent offenses. He said this allows the offender to simply avoid being caught for another crime for a year.
He said the district attorney’s office in Knox County is aware of his sentiments but he often isn’t asked before agreements are reached with defendants.
A case that received criticism locally for use of deferred disposition was one from 2009 when a 34-year-old Rockland man attacked his female partner as she was taking a shower. The man beat her in the head and stomach and then choked her. The woman ran from the home naked in the middle of the night during one of the coldest nights of the year. A neighbor was outside walking a dog and spotted the woman being chased. The offender fled when he spotted the neighbor. The woman suffered bruises over her body and broken blood vessels in her eyes from being choked.
The district attorney’s office reached a sentence agreement with the defendant in which he agreed to deferred disposition in turn for having the felony assault charge dropped and replaced with a misdemeanor assault charge.
Rushlau said that in this case the victim became uncooperative and even hired an attorney to avoid having to testify.
When the year on deferred disposition came to an end and the man appeared in court for sentencing, Rushlau sought a 364-day jail term for the misdemeanor assault. The judge, however, suspended the entire jail sentence. The man had been in a car crash while on deferred disposition in which his vehicle had been struck by a drunken driver. The judge cited the injuries to the man in imposing the suspended jail term, Rushlau said.
The homicide review panel recommended that Maine prosecutors address the issue of deferred disposition at their association conference to discuss and determine whether consistent guidelines for use of deferred disposition can be agreed to by the district attorneys.