Story by: Diane Newberry

Domestic violence is one of the most difficult crimes to address, experts say, because it involves a tangle of factors: intimate details of the perpetrators’ and victims’ lives, troubled histories and — at its heart — a fundamental misunderstanding of healthy emotional skills.

Acknowledging the unique challenges it poses, the House of Representatives voted 83-6 on Feb. 15 to classify domestic violence as its own crime category. Currently, domestic violence offenses are “stuck into” the state’s simple assault category, according to Aaron Birst, representing North Dakota county prosecutors.

The intent of HB1393 is primarily to improve data collection, according to Birst. Parties interested in getting statistics on domestic violence from North Dakota’s court system have a difficult time because the state classifies most domestic violence incidents under simple assault.

Incidents that reach more severe levels, such as pushing someone out of a car, could be classified as reckless endangerment and might be completely unreported in domestic violence statistics, according to Janelle Moos, executive director of the North Dakota Council on Abused Women’s Services.

Moos said HB1393 has been a work in progress over several legislative sessions. The 20 domestic violence crisis centers CAWS represents across the state rely on a “patchwork” of funding through various state funds and federal grants. Having reliable statistics on domestic violence can help centers better secure and allocate funding.

This bill is the latest piece in the Legislature’s efforts to re-evaluate how the courts treat domestic violence. In her testimony for HB1393, Moos cited a study by the American Probation and Parole Association, which found that two-thirds of state prisoners serving time for domestic violence had a prior conviction.

“The recidivism rates are very high in these instances,” Moos said. “Not just with one partner, but if they separate from one partner, they go on to potentially harm another partner.”

Legislation last session allocated funds for building a network of available service providers for court-ordered domestic violence classes. Though Moos said it has been a challenge in the past to bring programs to rural areas, all of the state’s judicial districts now have a provider.

One such program in the state is a 27-week course offered by the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks that aims to address the root of violence.

“As a society, we say victims need to leave their partner, but we know the violence doesn’t stop there because we know the offenders can seek out another victim, or seek out another partner and victimize that person,” said Jennifer Albert, a program coordinator for the CVIC. “So, really, what we want to do is get offenders into our programming to look at why they’re having these behaviors and why they use violence and really challenge them.”

CVIC has partnered with the first domestic violence court to be established in North Dakota, which opened in August in Grand Forks. They provide post-sentencing supervision of offenders and can notify a judge quickly if offenders are not complying with court-ordered activities.

According to Birst, the court has “good preliminary data” regarding its effectiveness. Though HB1393 does not directly involve domestic violence courts, if statistics are more readily available regarding domestic violence, courts can be strategically placed when the pilot program is ready to expand.

HB1393 initially changed the penalties for domestic violence, raising it from a class B to class A misdemeanor. This was amended in committee before it was voted on by the full House of Representatives. As the bill moves to the Senate, Moos said she hopes this change is reconsidered.

“I think it’s time we look at domestic violence a little bit different than a simple assault against somebody maybe you meet in a bar fight,” Moos said. “It’s a much more intimate crime when you know somebody and you supposedly love somebody.”

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