Gov. Paul LePage introduced a number of odd bills this session, but one in particular recently caused us to scratch our head. The lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee smartly killed LD 1606 before it saw too much daylight, but it’s unfortunate they had to spend any time on the matter at all.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kimberley Rosen at the governor’s request, sought to stop one office within the Maine Department of Corrections from giving the Legislature — and, therefore, the public — information each year on programs across the state that teach convicted domestic violence offenders how to recognize and stop their abusive behavior.
Known as batterers’ intervention programs, they have been shown through national studies to be effective at preventing offenders from re-assaulting their partners. Yet many judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys haven’t caught up. They’ve continued to require offenders, as part of their probation requirements, to take anger management classes or psychological counseling instead, which are often paid for with tax dollars through Medicaid. Offenders currently must pay for batterers’ intervention themselves, though it’s possible this will soon change for those who legitimately can’t afford it.
What’s more, there is no evidence that anger management or counseling prevents batterers from committing new offenses, according to the National Institute of Justice. In fact, in some cases it may increase the risk to victims, who may believe their partners are seeking help when in reality they are sidestepping the underlying reasons of why they abuse.
It comes down to this: The court system is still sending convicted offenders to programs that do nothing to change their behavior and requiring the state to pay for it.
You can see how it’s incredibly important for the state to track and lawmakers to know how many people are attending batterers intervention versus anger management or counseling each year. And that’s precisely what the Office of Victim Services’ report, which LePage wants to nix, offers.
In 2015, for instance, the report showed counseling was the probation condition of choice for courts, which sent batterers there 55 percent of the time. Forty-five percent of all probation conditions were for offenders to complete batterers’ intervention. And 17 percent of conditions were for anger management. (Out of 1,009 probationers, 171 had more than one probation condition.)
The LePage administration argued that the Office of Victim Services shouldn’t have to “pause in order to write a 55 page report to the Legislature.”
But take a look at the 49-page report from 2015 and compare it with previous reports. Much of the introduction is copied and pasted from one year to the next. Then, about 34 pages are just republishing wholesale the standards for batterers intervention programs — which already are published elsewhere. The quality assurance division within the corrections department is required to monitor the programs, and its review is included in the report; the victim services office doesn’t even write it.
Likely the most helpful thing about the report are the statistics about how many offenders are attending which kinds of programs as part of their probation. This is information the office already has. Why not publish it? If the document is requiring a significant amount of time to collate, the office has bigger problems to address.
The Legislature can’t make informed decisions to improve the criminal justice system if it doesn’t have good data. This year, for instance, lawmakers are proposing to put a small amount of state money toward the batterers’ intervention programs, to support indigent offenders who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. It will help get more offenders into the programs, and it’s the first time the programs would receive state funding — $150,000 in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.
The proposal is worthwhile because the state’s data back up the need.
It’s strange why LePage offered up LD 1606. It’s not as though he opposes batterers’ intervention programs. In fact, just the opposite. He recently signed a bill into law, also sponsored by Rosen, that will require courts that don’t order convicted domestic violence offenders to complete batterers’ intervention programs to provide reasons for not doing so. This is a major step forward for the programs, for offenders who will have a chance to change their lives, and victims who just want to be safe.
Good riddance to LD 1606. Maine needs to keep tracking what happens with the important programs, so it can continue to make changes as needed.