Decisions rendered by the courts can contribute to saving people’s lives or hastening their death. But judges’ orders are only as good as the information provided to them about a case and the training they’ve received. They can’t know what they don’t know. In the same vein, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the public can’t know what they don’t know about how their judicial system operates and succeeds or fails. They should.
In the 10th Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel report, released April 24, a group of 30 advocates, attorneys, health care workers and police recommended many excellent potential reforms to the way Maine works to prevent and respond to domestic violence. The panel, which reviewed 21 intimate partner or intrafamilial homicides that occurred between April 2009 and September 2013, presented specific ideas for improvement in various sectors, such as law enforcement, health care, prosecution and the Department of Corrections.
Suggestions for one sector — the judiciary — deserve emphasis here. The system that applies Maine’s laws is often overlooked as part of the response to domestic violence, and it can seem isolated from and intimidating to the public. The truth is that there is much the state doesn’t know about how Maine judges and others make decisions when it comes to family matters, protection from abuse orders, and criminal domestic violence cases because no one tracks the outcomes or has researched the trends.
The ideas in the panel’s report ranged from simple recommendations, such as making sure judges use legible handwriting in filling out protection orders, to more substantial refinements, such as considering a requirement that the exchange of children happen in supervised visitation centers when a protection from abuse order is in effect, and creating a way to document the status of weapons confiscated during the protection from abuse order process.
Other ideas involve training court clerks on the dynamics of domestic abuse to better help people seeking relief from the court system and to better guide victims on the differences between various types of protection orders, and training judges on when best to order offenders to complete batterers intervention programs.
These are all clearly needed improvements suggested by experts in the field, and they are also just the start. To know what else to change, the state would benefit greatly from having more information about what’s actually happening in the courts. An integrated, accessible, statewide records management system wouldn’t just allow police to accurately gauge an offender’s background and focus resources on high-risk cases, it would provide the tools for the courts and those who work in and with them to know where they can improve.
For instance, how many victims filing for protection from abuse orders don’t follow through with the order in the end, and why? Do judges show gender bias in their decisions relating to family matters or criminal cases? How many victims of domestic violence are also victims of sexual assault, and are they getting the correct services? What are the conviction rates for cases of domestic and sexual violence, have they changed over time, and why?
Maine doesn’t have answers to these basic questions because its records system isn’t digitized or widely accessible; and it hasn’t received the funding to do the research or modernize its system. Until it does, it will be difficult to know what other, deeper reforms to pursue. It may be that judges’ training should be updated, or the court process itself should be changed. But it’s hard to know what steps to take when the data isn’t clear.