Tennessee bill calls for jail for repeat abusers

Tennessee bill calls for jail for repeat abusers

April 29th, 2012 by Todd South in News

Robin Brewer, courts coordinator for the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, speaks to a domestic violence victim at the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

PROTECTION ORDERS


An order of protection is a judicial order to keep abusers from being near their victim. An average of 552 orders of protection were filed each year in Hamilton County between 2007 and 2011, according to court data.

For the same period, Knox County's average was 2,493 and Davidson County's was 852.

A March study in Knox County showed that only 20 percent of domestic violence victims seek a protective order and half of the protective orders are violated by the abuser.

The first time he went to jail for beating her wasn't the first time he had stood before a judge.

That first time in court wasn't the first time she had called police on him, and the first time she called police on him wasn't the first time he had hit her.

Over the 14 years of their marriage, he grew gradually more violent. At first she thought he was "Mr. Wonderful," but over time the man broke her down, belittling her bit by bit. By the end of their first year of marriage, after she'd had his child, he already had hit her and choked her.

In the beginning, he would woo her back in tearful apologies. Later he started using threats. If she didn't come back, he would kill her whole family.

Deana called police, he would be arrested, bonded out and be back home soon. She went to court, and he got probation.

"I had no idea I had any rights," she said.

The 39-year-old woman shared her story with the Chattanooga Times Free Press but asked that her last name not be published for fear of retribution from her now ex-husband.

One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Tennessee ranks fifth in the nation for the number of women murdered by men, according to a 2008 study by the Violence Policy Center. Over the past 11 years, Tennessee has been in the top 10 nine times. And half the women murdered in Tennessee by men were the man's wife or girlfriend.

Local changes in court procedures, attitudes and a $295,000 federal grant have made structural changes in court to help domestic violence victims.

Now a tougher sentencing measure awaiting Gov. Bill Haslam's signature attempts to deter abusers and protect victims. The new sentencing law will, for the first time in Tennessee, require that a repeat domestic assault offender serve mandatory jail time. As many as 2,500 abusers statewide could face mandatory jail time in the first year alone, according to legislative research estimates.

But only the beginnings of those changes were taking hold when, in 2009, Deana met with Robin Brewer, a court advocate for the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults in Chattanooga.

EMPOWERING STEPS

With Brewer's help, Deana was able to understand the court process, learn about resources to help her and her children when she left her husband, who she said had controlled every aspect of her life.

Those empowering steps finally broke the cycle of violence Deana had suffered for many years, she said.

Since 2009, her ex-husband has spent nearly two years in prison, first for assault charges and then for violating protective orders and stalking after he was released from jail. Deana is still dealing with past charges and her ex-husband's appeals.

Three years ago, with the help of other judges and the Hamilton County district attorney, all domestic assault appearances were moved to one day of the week -- Monday -- and rotated among the judges. If another court date is needed, the clerks can schedule everyone around the arresting officer's work schedule, keeping everyone in one place and the process moving.

"The way we're doing it now is wonderful compared to the way we were doing it. We wanted to make it a one-stop shop; at the courthouse we've got that," said Brewer, who has spent 22 years working with domestic violence victims

Each Monday she helps victims navigate the often-confusing world of General Sessions and Circuit courts. Victims turn to those courts in an attempt to protect themselves and avoid their abuser's pleadings and intimidation to change their story.

Sessions Court handles the criminal charge of domestic assault and violations of protective orders. The protective orders, however, are ruled on in Circuit Court, which handles civil matters.

The services and assistance through the courts and the Partnership help support Brewer's resounding message for victims: "You are so much stronger than you think you are."

STREAMLINING COURT

General Sessions Court Judge Christie Mahn Sell worked as a divorce attorney and mediator before taking the bench in 2006. The confusing way courts handled domestic violence cases was one reason she ran for office, Sell said.

Sell called domestic violence an anomaly in court.

"It's the only crime were two people [seemingly] care about each other," she said.

Along with Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams, Sell has led efforts to coordinate both courts dockets and clerks to better assist victims.

Often, Sell said, each court was waiting for the other to make a decision to move a case forward. Two decades of work preceding recent developments began the process. The new changes, grant and laws "make this bridge between our criminal and civil systems."

Brewer said victims often would come to court and not understand why charges were passed repeatedly to different dates. Without a trial, defendants who don't have a criminal record often can plea bargain for probation. If victims don't show in court or change their story, charges can be dismissed.

But beginning this year, coordination between the courts has improved.

With additional staff and a coming software program paid for through the federal grant, clerks from Circuit and Sessions courts meet with victims on Mondays in Sessions Court and process protection orders as the defendants wait for their docket call.

That simple step, linking the courts, has been a huge improvement for victims, Brewer said.

The two-court process at the beginning of a case created further drag on resolving charges, said Williams. Victims still must follow through on their cases in both courts, but the new system allows everything to begin in one place.

Williams, a judge since 1995, said she thinks the general public's "heightened awareness" about the "pervasive effect" of domestic violence has helped motivate the courts and lawmakers to work to improve the system.

Because defendants have a right not to testify, they often would wait until their criminal charge was resolved before handling the civil court procedures, she said. Over time, lawyers, witnesses and officers wear down, and plea bargains are more likely.

"Which means every time we continue something then [Sessions] continues it," Williams said. "[Defendants] can do things that the law ties our hands on."

JAIL TIME

State Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, has spent six years trying to make jail time mandatory for repeat offenders convicted of domestic assault. The mission is a personal one. His mother was a victim of domestic violence who got away from her abuser.

Then on Thanksgiving Day 2006, one of Coley's fellow teachers at Bolton High School, a woman named Ashley Scott, died from a severe beating and stomping by her husband, Jeffrey Scott.

Jeffrey Scott assaulted his wife in an alcohol-fueled argument and left her on a garage floor overnight before calling a doctor friend the next day. She died hours later. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

The incident haunts Coley, who received copies of Scott's autopsy photographs and has shared them in committee meetings with fellow lawmakers and sent them to Haslam's office last year.

This year, Haslam included a version of Coley's bill in his public safety package and money to help pay for it in his budget. Coley said it was the governor's backing that got this measure passed, though there were compromises.

"He embraced it as a reform, and I'm glad he did," Coley said.

As originally introduced this year, the bill sought a mandatory 45-day jail sentence and a fine between $350 and $3,500 upon the second conviction for domestic assault. Third and subsequent convictions would have required at least 120 days in jail and a fine between $1,100 and $5,000.

The bill that passed through the state House earlier this month and the state Senate on Wednesday was amended to require 30 days in jail for a second conviction and 90 days in jail for subsequent convictions. The fines remained the same.

The changes reduced the estimated statewide cost of $8.1 million to $4.8 million for county jails. To ease the burden increased jail time will place on counties, Haslam included $600,000 in his budget for county jails and increased the daily reimbursement for housing state felons by $2, from $35 to $37, at an annual statewide cost of $4 million.

Legislative research estimated that, for the entire state per year, there would be 1,615 second-time offenders in jail and 904 more offenders on their third or greater offense in jail.

Coley hopes jail time and fines will help deter abusers, but another goal is helping victims by giving them time away from the abuse.

Often domestic abuse victims are financially and emotionally controlled by their abusers and return to their abuser out of sense of hopelessness or mental conditioning, experts said.

Separation from the abusive situation can help victims make changes.

"It gives them the time to reflect on the situation and seek refuge elsewhere and protect their family and children," Coley said.