Story by: Sandy Hodson
San Diego has significantly reduced its number of intimate partner homicides, and studies and “best practices” guides offer more advice to justice systems.
Brittnee Reynolds suffered a decade of terror from her husband, who is now serving a long prison term. But Reynolds doesn’t want to be the rare survivor of domestic violence.
She doesn’t have to be.
The will is here to make a change, and as Richmond County State Court Solicitor Omeeka Loggins believes, the community doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of role models for obtaining successful outcomes in intimate partner violence cases.
San Diego city attorney Casey Gwinn found a way that has significantly reduced the number of intimate partner violence homicides. In 2001, he led his city in creating the first Family Justice Center, a one-stop center where victims can find help with medical care, legal representation, transportation, advocacy and basic needs such as food and shelter.
The authors of the National Domestic Violence Prosecution Best Practices Guide took note of San Diego’s success in 2017. Among the recommendations is a change in focus from “why some 80% of domestic violence victims recant” to evidence-based prosecution.
Prosecutors cannot normally substitute the victim’s initial statement to police for live testimony, but they can prove cases with evidence – pictures, officers’ body cam video, torn clothing, broken items, signs of struggle, the defendant’s statements – to put jurors at the scene of the crime, according to the recommendations.
Gwinn came to realize that when the decision to prosecute was left up to the victim, they were painting a target on her back. Abusers believed they could escape accountability and punishment by controlling the victims. And it works until the system stops making the victims responsible, he said in media interviews.
Special domestic violence units can make a huge difference in successful prosecutions, according to a compilation of studies by the Department of Justice. They have more time to investigate, collect evidence and maintain contact with victims. The studies found victims are more cooperative because they feel safer.
The Justice Department found that the more intensive the sentence imposed for domestic violence, the less reoffending followed. The same is true for strict compliance hearings when they stray. Jail time should be imposed for defendants with any type of prior arrests, a number of studies have found, according to the Justice Department.
Those in the criminal justice system must recognize the lethality indicators, according to the Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project. Through studying domestic violence murders for the past 15 years, the team discovered a list of factors that increase the chance for abuse to turn deadly. It’s echoed in best practices’ lists for prosecutors, law enforcement and judges.
Loggins said it would be wonderful if Richmond County created a domestic violence response team. It would help her office assess cases to be in a better position to inject their voice for judicial decisions on bond and punishment. Currently, her assistants have only a couple of hours to prepare for the days when those recently arrested are brought before a judge.
District Attorney Natalie Paine and Loggins know reducing the time between arrest and court is crucial to successful prosecutions. There needs to be a better bridge for victims to get the support they need immediately when they are too scared or brainwashed to seek safety, and to protect those who are trying to get away, Paine said.
Paine’s office recently began requesting a certain condition when bond is granted to anyone charged with a violent crime – no possession of a firearm. That could be pivotal in saving the lives of domestic violence victims, according to the Justice Department, the Fatality Review committee and the committee that created the bench book on domestic violence for Georgia judges.
According to studies cited by the Fatality Review Project, in states where judges have ordered from the first hearing for temporary restraining orders that the accused cannot possess a weapon, there has been a 12% reduction in intimate partner homicide and a 16% reduction in intimate partner homicide by firearms.
The bench book on domestic violence for Georgia recommends judges consider a “no firearm” provision in every temporary restraining order case. They can include in the order that the officer who serves the defendant with a copy is to take any firearms at that time. If the decision turns out to be unnecessary at the full hearing, usually within 30 days of the issuance of the temporary restraining order, it can be reversed.
Loggins said she intends to focus on domestic violence in 2020. One critical issue she sees is reducing the time to get the cases to trial. If a domestic violence case gets to be two years old, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute. She wants to reduce the time to no more than three months.
“We can fix this, maybe not overnight, but we can work toward individual goals and work together,” Loggins said.
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