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Domestic violence program questioned

Alex Miller
Photo illustration by Preston Utley/Vail DailyNot everyone agrees on what's the best way of dealing with domestic violence offenders.
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EAGLE COUNTY – Until recently, those arrested for seemingly minor incidents of domestic violence could satisfy the court by taking a one-day course on anger management. But a recent disagreement over the appropriateness of the so-called diversion program has done away with the one-day classes in favor of the far more rigorous 36-week program.Now, says District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, there’s no continuum between what lower-level offenders are offered and that given to more serious cases.”People told me it was a great program,” Hurlbert said of the one-day class. “They learned a lot and changed the way they went towards their relationship.”With Colorado’s mandatory arrest law in domestic violence cases, a person can call the police and have a spouse or partner arrested for anything from physical assault to verbal abuse to blocking a door or withholding car keys. While Hurlbert thinks it makes sense to apply a shorter program to the lesser offense, some, said therapist Jim Easton, were concerned some more serious offenders were “getting off” with the one-day class.”I heard some complaints by victims’ advocates that people who should have been punished were getting the one day,” said Easton, a therapist with Alpine Counseling who taught the one-day diversion classes. “I think it’s a loss; I thought it was really beneficial to a number of people who had to take them.”But over in Summit County, Advocates for Victims of Assault took issue with the one-day diversion. “We have concerns with the one-day class and the message it sends to offenders,” said Sarah Vaine, co-director of Advocates. “It goes to the issue of how seriously our community takes domestic violence.”But Vaine also acknowledged the one-size-fits-all, 36-week program is also far from perfect, and says it should ultimately be up to the treatment provider to determine the correct program.”As victim advocates, it’s hard for us to say because we don’t work with offenders,” she said. “But if experts in the field came up with a different approach with some kind of continuum of treatment and evaluation process, and they decided to revise the standards based on that expertise, then we’d support that change.”Law & order

When it comes to handling domestic violence, Hurlbert says the district attorney’s office has far fewer tools than it does for something like a DUI case.”There’s a big jump with nothing in between,” he says of the domestic violence diversion. “On DUI, there’s a continuum of treatment.” State law doesn’t provide for anything less than the 36-week diversion; the one-day class was a program unique to the local district. With that off the table, those arrested for domestic violence – regardless of the severity – could find themselves occupied for nine full months of all-day Saturday classes. And that’s on top of whatever other punishment they might receive, starting with the initial arrest and jail time.Edwards attorney Rohn Robbins, who’s represented a number of defendants in domestic violence cases, said there’s no doubt that plenty of serious, legitimate cases exist.”The problem is the (law) is so strict, and it errs on the side of doing too much so that people get hauled in for things that can be relatively inconsequential,” Robbins said.For an example, he cited a man who threw a pair of socks at his girlfriend and spent a few nights in jail, plus several months resolving the case. As Robbins explained, once two people have an established, intimate relationship, any acrimonious contact between them is subject to interpretation through domestic violence laws.Another “absurd” example he recalled involved a woman who received a fax that criticized her business. Suspecting her ex-boyfriend, she contacted the police who, because of the previous relationship, arrested him on harassment charges. Although he was later cleared, he spent three nights in jail.”It’s really humiliating,” Robbins said. People arrested for domestic violence must appear before a judge before they can be released, and if the arrest occurs on a weekend – as they often do – they must spend a night or more in jail, Robbins said. “That means handcuffs, prison garb it’s very unpleasant for something that could be quite minor,” he said.The strict nature of domestic violence law can also try the patience of the police officers who respond to the calls. Avon Police Chief Jeff Layman said his officers encounter a wide range of things that fall in the domestic violence realm – from a couple yelling at one another to assault and serious injury.

Police must respond to them all in more or less the same fashion.”Police officers have a great range of discretion in the way they handle most of the things they come in contact with,” Layman said. “They try very hard to pick the tool they think is the most effective. In domestic violence cases, some of those tools have been taken away, so in certain minor cases it’s frustrating to the officer to not do something that might be more effective than arrest.”Still, Layman said, he’d rather be too strict than not strict enough.”It’s better to err on the side of a forced cooling-off period than to make a mistake that costs someone their life,” he said.Proper punishmentOn the other hand, Hurlbert said some offenders could view 36 weeks of classes as punishment in itself.”The ultimate goal is to protect the victims,” he said. “That 36 weeks, it’s a long time, and it could create somebody who has animosity toward the victim.”Hurlbert said he’s trying to solve the problem within the current statutes and by talking to police, counselors and others involved. If that doesn’t work, he said, he may look to the state legislature for a change.State Rep. Gary Lindstrom, who’s worked in law enforcement and also sits on the board of Summit County Advocates for Victims of Assault, said he agreed with Hurlbert that there needed to be a “menu” of possible mitigation to deal with different degrees of domestic violence.”One-size-fits-all is not appropriate,” said Lindstrom, who represents Eagle County. “Each case is different, and it’s a very personal thing for people. It’s not like speeding or shoplifting where you can look at a particular solution.”

While he said he’s not aware of anything “in the mill” at the state capitol on the matter, Lindstrom said he would be open to more discussion within the community to arrive at a better solution.”I think there should be some kind of required counseling for the victim and the perpetrator,” he said. “Someone should evaluate them and try to determine what occurred and what kind of prevention measures should be used.”==========================================What’s nextA meeting of the Colorado Domestic Violence Treatment Board is scheduled for May 17. Members of the board will discuss the diversion program for domestic violence offenders with district attorneys, treatment providers and defense attorneys. ==========================================Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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