Domestic violence from the criminal justice perspective | Guest column

by Sandi Burt

Prosecutor’s Victim Advocate

The dispatcher recognizes the victim’s voice. The deputies know the address. The prosecutor remembers the prior incidents. The advocate knows the victim.  The defense attorney, judge, probation officer, counselors, domestic violence perpetrator treatment provider know the abuser.

We all take our deep breaths, conjuring hope that, perhaps, this time, change will come. We hope our small piece of the puzzle can, this time, help to make the difference. Why?  Because violence escalates.

In 2011 in Washington:

• 42 people were killed by domestic violence abusers.

• 13 abusers committed murder- suicide.

• 83 percent of victims killed by partners were women; 17 percent were men.

• Three domestic violence fatality cases involved same-sex partners.

• The youngest victim, killed by her boyfriend, was 13 years old. The oldest victim, killed by his wife, was 83 years old.

• 17 children witnessed a domestic violence murder.

• In at least 55 percent of homicides by abusers, the domestic violence victim had left the  abuser or was trying to leave. (WA Coalition Against DV, 2012)

Victims call 911 when things are so out of control that they fear for their lives. When they survive, and calm returns, they face the challenging effects of their partner’s arrest – practical and emotional.  When victims also have mental health, substance abuse, or other problems, the challenge of holding abusers accountable is further compromised by their own desperate needs. They call the advocate, asking for charges to be dropped, no contact orders to be lifted. What many do not understand is that victims do not decide whether charges are filed. This is the sole responsibility of the prosecutor. If victims were responsible for these decisions, how high might the DV homicide rates soar?  No contact orders forbid defendants from contacting victims. Paradoxically, when all a victim wants is to reunite with the defendant, the “system” becomes another experience in feeling no control – much like life with an abuser.

Most victims want treatment, not jail, for their abusers. This goal is shared by the criminal justice system, especially for first offenses. Many believe counseling and chemical dependency treatment will solve the problem. Though substance abuse and mental illness often coexist with DV, these problems are separate and distinct from the unique problems of abusers. Domestic violence has roots in the way abusers relate to partners. It’s not “caused” by substances or mental illness.

State law sets strict standards for DV perpetrator treatment, but our local state certified program closed a few months ago.  Offenders now must get treatment on the mainland – in these economic times, a significant hardship. The alternative? Some time in jail? Fines? Give up? We hope for a program to resume services here soon. We keep breathing, hoping and caring.