IX. Domestic Violence Courts
Victims of domestic violence have long endured a culture of ignorance on the subject of domestic violence. Thus, it is no surprise that until the late 1970s, a wife was not able to file a protection order against her husband unless she also filed for divorce. Even so, restraining orders offered little in the way of protection by law enforcement or the criminal justice system; they were rarely monitored or enforced. The problem of domestic violence was largely viewed as a dilemma best addressed through counseling or crisis intervention programs rather than through the legal system. Yet, as the domestic violence movement worked to increase public awareness on the subject, it began to receive more attention from the legal system. Finally, domestic violence gradually came to be seen more seriously as a crime that is more appropriately addressed through the courts instead of family counseling sessions. However, even though awareness improved, negative stereotypes persisted as an impediment to prosecution. Offenders were rarely sentenced, and courts continued to turn toward family crisis intervention programs instead of taking punitive measures (Fagan, 1996).
The court system has seen a large influx of domestic violence cases since the implementation of mandatory arrest laws for offenders. Unfortunately, there is little conclusive research as to how these cases fared within the legal system (Henning & Feder, 2005). Advocates and the legal system began to grapple with an emerging need for across-the-board legal processes that could successfully resolve the social, human, and legal dilemmas pertaining to domestic violence cases. As a result, domestic violence cases are now commonly viewed as a distinctive legal phenomenon that should be handled similarly to drug or mental health cases that are handled in specialized drug courts or mental health courts (Mazur & Aldrich, 2003).
Although domestic abuse is a crime, the traditional court system is ill-equipped to deal with all of the complexities involved in domestic violence cases. Because these cases typically include extenuating concerns pertaining to children, property, finances, and victim safety, they necessitate legal services and procedures that are different from those in regular courts. As attention has turned to the unique circumstances of domestic violence cases, specialized courts have emerged in the United States to meet victims’ needs.
Similar to drug courts, there is no particular model that has been determined to be the “example court” model. What has emerged over the years, however, are common programming aspects that are usually indicative of a more progressive specialized court. Examples of these include case assignment, specialized judges, screening for related cases, intake units and case processing, service provision, and case monitoring. Ideally, cases are assigned to specific judges who specialize in domestic violence cases. The screening process determines whether victims or families are involved in other open cases or have prior involvement in domestic violence court. Often, however, screening is hampered by poor technology or limited information exchange. Thus, current court models seek to simplify the screening process and open information channels in order to obtain documents pertaining to specific victims or families. Because victims and offenders require community resources that apply specifically to their situation, domestic violence courts and community programs must be able to work together in order to provide needed services. Efficient domestic violence courts also include case monitoring. Effective coordination of services among the legal system, treatment providers, and victim advocates is enhanced through frequent meetings to exchange thoughts and ideas for improvements (Mazur & Aldrich, 2003). Overall, a common theme among successful models for domestic violence courts seeks to meet two main goals: victim safety and offender accountability.
Tsai (2000) did a multisite study to evaluate domestic violence court models. One of the specialized courts Tsai evaluated is located in Quincy, Massachusetts, an urban community outside of Boston. The Quincy court coordinates an integrated system of judges, clerks, law enforcement, social services, and local agencies to provide a comprehensive community response. Tsai concluded that the primary effectiveness of Quincy’s coordinated system stems from its ability to increase the victim’s sense of empowerment through an adequate provision of legal and community resources. Due to its ability to provide victims with the services they need to maintain their safety and successfully escape their abusive situation, Quincy’s domestic violence court is often used as a model for other cities.
Tsai (2000) also evaluated the domestic violence court of Dade County, Florida. The Dade County court model is based on therapeutic jurisprudence, which has its roots in mental health cases but has also come to the attention of experts as an appropriate response for domestic violence cases. The idea behind therapeutic jurisprudence is to enhance the psychological well-being of those who come into contact with the legal system (Winick, 1997). The Dade County domestic violence court prides itself on expanding its ideas and roles beyond that of the traditional legal system in order to reinforce victim empowerment, increase victim safety, and provide treatment alternatives to traditional penalties for offenders.
Positive findings were reported by a process and outcome evaluation of the Lexington County Domestic Violence Court in South Carolina (Gover, MacDonald, & Alpert, 2003). This study found that offenders who were processed in the specialized court had a 40% lower recidivism rate compared to a historical control group of offenders who were processed in traditional courts. This court also followed the tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence. In addition, Gover, Brank, and MacDonald (2007) reported that victims and offenders whose cases were processed in the domestic violence court found the court to have treated them with respect and thought that the process was fair, and also felt that they had a “voice” in the process in the sense that the judge listened to their side of the story and seemed concerned.