The Herald Bulletin

October 20, 2012

Justice for victims

Domestic violence cases taken seriously by courts

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Each year, Judge Stephen Clase issues about 1,300 protective orders in Madison County.

“When a victim comes to court and asks me to issue a protective order I find that they are scared,” said Clase, who presides over Madison County Magistrate’s Court and is the issuer of those orders locally. “Sometimes they are even physically abused with visible bruises and cuts. What they want is to keep the abuser away.”

While protective orders are an important piece of the legal puzzle that domestic violence victims have to solve, Clase stresses to each that it is, after all, “just a piece of paper.”

“They won’t stop a knife or a bullet,” he said. “I tell them they need to be on guard at all times.”

But Clase noted that most abusers will obey these important court documents that forbid them from seeing or contacting the victim.

“But some don’t,” he said, seriously. “And they are the dangerous ones.”

Judges play a major role in the fight against domestic violence, Clase said, pointing out that courts are involved in the incidents from the beginning with the issuance of the protective and no contact orders — and at the end when handing down sentences.

Clase is one of several who play an important role in the judicial side of domestic violence.

‘No drop policy’

Domestic violence-related charges can be misdemeanors or felonies.

First offense domestic battery charges as well as invasion of privacy are considered misdemeanors while second offense domestic battery, battery on a pregnant woman or in the presence of children, strangulation and more serious charges are handled as felonies.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings is quick to say his office takes all cases seriously. However, in many of the cases, the victim asks the charges be dropped.

“This happens routinely,” he said.

And it occurs for various reasons. Perhaps a suspect has intimidated the victim. Or the victim is fearful she won’t be able to support her family by herself. Or the victim is in love and doesn’t want the abuser to go to jail.

“They will risk going to jail themselves all for the person who has battered them,” he said. “But I know in many situations it is tricky, a woman has to decide between her own safety and the welfare of her children if the suspect is the only one supporting the family financially. I see the real agony and anguish victims go through. It is tough for us to see a mom put her own safety aside to take care of her kids.”

But a victim’s refusal to cooperate — or even recanting an accusation — won’t cause a case to be dropped in Madison County.

“We have a no drop policy. We would rather have a trial and lose than dismiss a case not having done our best to protect the victim, even if the victim doesn’t want to protect themselves,” Cummings said.

Some cases, he said, are dropped if there is not enough evidence to try the case.

Deputy prosecutor Dan Kopp said in some circumstances where victims refuse to cooperate or change their story the accuser could face criminal charges for false informing or failure to appear. But by talking with victims, explaining the process and that the office’s goal is to protect them, victims often understand the importance of participating, he said. The role of advocates assist with that process, he added.

Case outcomes

Kopp prosecutes all the cases in city and town courts across Madison County. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of his cases are related to domestic violence.

“Domestic violence is intolerable,” he said. “There is no excuse for it. It is not at all cool and completely unacceptable. I do my best to hold people accountable for this crime.”

Kopp prosecutes hundreds of cases weekly with only a handful going to trial. The vast majority end with a plea agreement with the victim’s recommendations taken “very seriously,” Kopp said.

Like Cummings, Kopp said it is “very common” for victims to request the charges be dropped. Kopp doesn’t do it, he said.

“I realize the cycle of violence and how it is a vicious pattern,” Kopp said. “But holding the abuser accountable is the most important thing.”

There are four possible ways for these cases to clear the courts, Pendleton Town Court Judge George Gasparovic said. Charges can be dismissed, a judge could agree on a plea agreement, the case can head to trial or there could be a modified agreement.

That final option, Gasparovic explained, is when the defendant is offered treatment and other conditions to follow during a specific period like six months with a provision that the offense is not repeated. Charges could then be dismissed if the stipulations are met.

Many of those involved in the prosecution of domestic violence-related cases had a difficult time talking about a “typical” case as these incidents are so “case specific.”

Factors such as the severity of the abuse and injuries, the use of or the threat to use weapons, substance abuse, any criminal history and if children are involved make these cases difficult to generalize.

With that said, Gasparovic said typical sentences for a domestic battery case in his court involves a year in jail with that sentence suspended, probation, substance abuse treatment and anger management or attendance to the Batterer’s Intervention Program along with more than $1,000 in fees and fines.

Importance of rehabilitation

Treatment is a critical component of sentencing in both city and circuit courts.

Circuit Court Judge David Happe said about a quarter of his caseload is domestic violence-related. Holding defendants accountable for their criminal actions is critical, the goal is to change behavior. And a prison sentence isn’t always the best way to do that.

“We want to build new habits in people,” Happe said, noting that often times problems with sobriety and employment are major contributors behind domestic violence.

“If we expect people to act differently we are obligated to offer them the tools to help them change,” he said. “And those who want to change can, with the provided tools. They aren’t all evil people who want to be violent. Sometimes they don’t have the skills to deal with conflict so they revert to violence and anger.

“I think we are all shocked and unhappy with where we are,” Happe said of the high volume of domestic violence cases seen in Madison County. “And while the gut reaction may be to slam them all into prison for as long as possible, for the long term that is not the safest thing. They have the wrong tools to deal with relationships and in prison they won’t get the right tools.”

Kopp said the treatment provided in Madison County helps offenders realize they have choices beyond violence and anger.

Improvements, room to grow

“Drunk driving and domestic violence cases are the ones that keep me up at night,” Happe said solemnly. “I keep trying to think, ‘Is this the person that is going to hurt someone?’ That weighs on my mind when I look at that caseload.”

But he said he can’t assume the worst of every defendant. Instead, the court needs to find a way to better assess individuals. One recent system put into place — the Indiana Risk Assessment System (IRAS) — helps identify areas of high risk for recidivism.

This, Happe said, should help the judicial system focus resources for individual cases, as opposed to having a “cookie cutter” approach. An IRAS evaluation is conducted for every person convicted of a felony.

Kopp said Madison County’s approach to domestic violence has improved over the years.

“We are doing a better job holding people accountable,” he said. “I think slowly people will realize they aren’t going to get away with it and things will start to change. But things aren’t going to get better overnight. It is still a very, very serious problem.”

But even with the most sophisticated policies and procedures in place, tragedies can and will occur, Cummings said.

“No matter what protections are put into place, there are no laws or protocol that can change people who are willing to give up their life to hurt us,” he said. “We are all at risk of being hurt, especially from those that we have that are closest to us in our lives.”

Find Abbey Doyle on Facebook and @heraldbulletin on Twitter, or call 640-4805.