Published: February, 2014| Janelle Kendall, Edited by Stephanie Avalon

The nation’s first domestic violence court for repeat felony offenders was opened in Minnesota by the Stearns County Domestic Violence Partnership in 2009.

Trying to address the overcrowding of the jail, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall learned that 30 to 40 people were responsible for committing about 100 felonies a year. These repeat offenders caused the largest amount of work for criminal justice partners and posed the greatest risk of felonious re-assault to their victims, 85% of whom had children.

Partnering to Improve Public Safety

Criminal justice representatives and community based victim services, along with the defense bar and legal aid, formed the Partnership in 2008 to address the problem of these repeat felony offenders. To increase offender accountability and victim safety, the partners chose to implement intensive offender supervision and enhanced collaboration among criminal justice agencies and community organizations. With the assistance of the Center for Court Innovation, the Stearns County Domestic Violence Partnership created a planning timeline, developed a data collection plan and created a system map. Data collected showed the failure of the criminal justice system’s traditional approach which relied on unmonitored conditions of release and relative low bail.

The Program

The court identifies repeat felony domestic violence offenders at the initial arrest stage. Once identified, defendants are mandated to immediate pretrial intensive supervision that includes drug and alcohol testing and quick access to treatment if necessary, as well as strict no contact and behavior conditions. At the same time, victims have access to community-based victim services, victim assistance through the county attorney’s office, and a legal aid attorney.

Grants initially funded four positions for two years: a specialized probation officer, a domestic violence victim assistance coordinator, a surveillance agent to enforce court orders 24/7, and a 70% FTE legal aid attorney to address the victims’ civil legal needs. “Arming victims with a lawyer,” Kendall says, gives victims options and information as they make critical decisions about their families. The program has been operational four full years and is now a permanent county funded criminal justice solution for repeat DV offenders and victims.

Offenders Who Qualify for Felony Domestic Violence Court

The specialized accountability court sees offenders who are charged in Stearns County with a felony domestic violence related offense against a spouse, former spouse or significant other, or who have a child(ren) in common. The offender must have at least one prior domestic violence related felony charge and a felony conviction within the preceding fifteen years. To date, offenders in this court have averaged three felony convictions a year over the course of many years, accounting for the majority of offenders who were crowding the county jail.

Increased Victim Services Improve Victim Safety

Legal Aid initiates contact with victims soon after the arrest of a qualifying offender. This initial contact usually finds the victim somewhat skeptical. But as the court holds offenders accountable, victims begin to take advantage of the legal aid attorney to address a wide range of issues, including child support, divorce and custody, housing, medical assistance, immigration and Protection Orders. Some services may have nothing to do with the offender in the Felony Domestic Violence Court, but improving victims’ independence and safety also broadens their choices.

Ann Cofell of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid says that victims often have little trust the system will hold the offenders accountable. In their experience, only the batterer keeps his promises: to keep on abusing her. As time goes on, and victims see that offenders are indeed watched and brought back to court for violating probation conditions, trust develops.

New Initiatives

Prosecutors, law enforcement and community advocates in the Partnership have seen increased victim willingness to accept services as other barriers are overcome through confidential legal help. This led to an additional pilot project that provides confidential community advocates at the scene of an arrest, with victim service engagement increasing from 10% to over 80%.

Drawing on the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) which showed that childhood trauma significantly increases health issues throughout the lifespan, collaboration is underway to provide child trauma counseling and intervention services within hours of police contact through law enforcement referrals, should the victim desire these services for her children.

Defendants who were sent to prison for their repeat felony offenses were seen to have higher incidences of re-offense upon release, so many are now funneled through more targeted supervision upon release from prison.

The Partnership saw that the repeat offender population is commonly re-victimizing persons who have been abused before. To address these barriers, victim services must be better, faster, and more intensive. Recognizing these challenges through a robust data collection and evaluation system allows the Partnership to continue to grow and better respond to the intentionally chosen population.

Specialization Works

In the first three full years of operation, only 5 new domestic assaults were committed by the population of repeat domestic violence offenders (136 total). Prior to the court defendants averaged 3 felony assault arrests per year. Stearns County Domestic Violence Partnership attributes its success to several important factors:

  • Expertise, consistency, and coordination among team members ensures efficiency and accountability.
  • Victim safety can be increased when system practitioners work closely and across discipline; learning about the level of danger victims face.
  • The same judge/prosecutor/probation agent team for regular (weekly) court reviews discourages repeat offenses.
  • The same team working with victims and families increases confidence and alleviates stress for the family.
  • Repeated violations are reduced when sanctions for noncompliance are prompt, court-directed, and certain.

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Recorded Webinars

The Stearns County Domestic Violence Partnership presented two webinars to describe this court’s development and discuss how the partners collaborate.

In Part 1 the partners discuss how they work to achieve offender accountability.

In Part 2 the partners discuss how they work to achieve victim safety.