The progress made over the past two decades in reducing domestic violence is remarkable given that throughout most of human history, such violence often hasn’t even been considered a crime.
But since 1994, as growing awareness efforts encouraged people to stop averting their eyes and start seeing the danger, the overall rate of violence involving “intimate partners” decreased nationally by a stunning 64 percent, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Justice special report. The number of officially tallied “victimizations” stood at 2.1 million in 1994. In 2010, it had dropped to 907,000.
That’s a significant step forward, but there are still far too many people, mostly women, in harm’s way because of a relationship. A spring turned tragic in Minnesota by the confirmation of the deaths of two women potentially linked to domestic violence — Kira Steger and Danielle Jelinek — was a sad reminder of this crime’s ongoing toll and the need to find innovative ways to reduce it. Another Minnesota woman, Mandy Matula, who is still missing after she was last seen with a former boyfriend, is also feared to be a victim of this type of abuse.
Minnesota has long been at the forefront of finding new, thoughtful approaches to stem domestic violence. The “Duluth Model” pioneered a communitywide approach to halt batterers. The St. Paul Police Department’s “Blueprint for Safety” has been another significant step forward.
Now, Stearns County is building upon this admirable foundation to make the state even more of a standout. Its “Repeat Felony Domestic Violence Court’’ has garnered accolades recently and should become a new national model for holding abusers accountable and helping break the emotional, financial and legal ties that can make victims too frightened to leave.
The court, which began formal operation in St. Cloud in 2009, is believed to be the first of its kind nationally to focus on what prosecutors and law enforcement officers sometimes refer to as “frequent fliers,” the repeat, felony-level domestic offenders who get arrested, get released, threaten their partners again and keep cycling through the legal system. They often show in court for other violations, such as drunken driving or thefts, making them one-person crime waves.
These are the guys (at this point all the abusers in the court program have been male) who “don’t believe the rules apply to them,’’ said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, who is one of the program’s most forceful champions.
The offenders are also some of the county’s most dangerous. Kendall and other officials involved in the initiative’s founding — from courts and law enforcement to victims’ advocates, probation and Legal Aid, among others — were originally asked to review ways to reduce jail crowding.
But as they dove into the data, they realized that a relatively small group of domestic offenders were not just a drain on justice system resources, but perhaps the most serious public-safety threat in this central Minnesota county. Many of the county’s “intentional homicide victims” were also abused wives, girlfriends or family members.
What the Stearns County initiative does is make sure that rules do apply to these offenders — currently between 40 to 60. Instead of a traditional approach, which typically involves low bail and too little supervision, the Stearns County initiative ensures intensive and immediate supervision, drug and alcohol monitoring, and a surveillance officer on the prowl in the county to enforce no-contact orders.
Law enforcement also has a “frequent flier” list in squad cars with key info — places of employment, type of cars driven — maximizing officer resources to ensure that offenders stay away from victims. Voice-recognition software and other resources also have led to more effective monitoring of offenders’ jailhouse phone calls — often the first ones after incarceration are made to victims to maintain control from afar even when there are no contact orders in place.
“In three full years of operation, the population of repeat offenders (136 total) has committed only five new domestic assaults. Prior to the court there were on average three felony assault arrests a year per defendant,’’ according to information on the program from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
The program helps build victims’ faith in the system’s ability to protect them, but it also ensures more rapid access to resources and support they need. A key component of the St. Cloud program: making a Legal Aid attorney more accessible to domestic violence victims. That has practical benefits such as helping victims get out of leases to move to more affordable housing.
Julie, who didn’t want her full name used for safety reasons, relied on Legal Aid to help her fight for custody of her child and fight off a harassment order filed by her abuser, who first hurt her six weeks into their relationship. The court program’s surveillance officer also responded immediately after Julie learned that the abuser was headed to her home with violent intentions.
“He’s back in prison. I’m doing great, though obviously I have my days,’’ said Julie, who urges other victims to seek help, even if they can’t take advantage of Stearns County’s program. “There are always people willing to help and listen and get you on the right track.’’