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Study finds suburban Hennepin County cities go easier on domestic abusers

Study finds suburban Hennepin County cities go easier on domestic abusers
CORBIS

Minneapolis shares Hennepin County with dozens of municipalities, but an ambitious study finds little common ground between the city and its suburbs in the handling of domestic abuse cases in the courts.

Most days, in at least one of Hennepin County’s downtown Minneapolis courtrooms, there sits a person scribbling notes onto a piece of paper fixed to a red clipboard.

These are the trained volunteers of the court monitoring organization WATCH, and their job is to scrutinize the handling of domestic abuse cases. Their observations are the raw material that will be analyzed by the organization to spot patterns and advocate for system-wide reforms. WATCH has been at it for nearly 20 years.


In August 2009, WATCH sent its volunteers to Hennepin County’s suburban courts at Brookdale, Ridgedale and Southdale. It was the launch of an ambitious 21-month project — their first ever outside the downtown courts. WATCH volunteers created detailed reports on close to 1,500 domestic abuse cases they observed first-hand.

So what did they find?

Most notably they found significant disparities between Minneapolis courts and suburban courts all the way down the line.

Let’s start with "non-enhanceable offenses." In Minnesota, domestic assault is an offense that can be upgraded — or enhanced — if the abuser is charged for the same kind of offense a second and third time (from misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor to felony). A non-enhanceable offense in a domestic abuse case would be something like disorderly conduct.

In the suburban courts a person charged with domestic abuse was much more likely to wind up with disorderly conduct on their record. Of the suburban court cases monitored by WATCH, just 30 percent ended in an enhanceable offense. In Minneapolis for that same period, it was 70 percent.

“What we know about domestic violence is that it escalates. You must have swift consequences on the front end to prevent future assaults from happening,” says WATCH Executive Director Marna Anderson. “When the system downplays those first couple of assaults it's doing a disservice to everybody — the abuser is not getting the services he needs to stop abusing and the victim is not getting the attention she needs so that she can be safe.”

The conviction rate in non-felony domestic abuse cases also differed from city to suburb. It was 56 percent in the suburbs, according to WATCH, and 66 percent in Minneapolis for the same period.

Then there is something called the pre-sentence investigation (PSI). In Minnesota, if a person is convicted of a domestic abuse-related offense, the law urges a special investigation to be completed before sentencing. This is the PSI and here’s how it goes down: The defendant is evaluated and the victim’s suffering assessed. The security of the victim is gauged too, as is the defendant’s willingness to go through special programming for abusers. Criminal history and probation records are thrown into the mix too.

With all of this, theoretically, a judge can make a sound sentencing decision with full consideration of the victim’s needs and the abuser’s history and state of mind.

In Minneapolis’ domestic violence court, a period of one week is allowed for the completion of a PSI. In the suburbs that window is just four hours.

The last major discrepancy is a mouthful: continuances for dismissal. It’s simple, really. A deal is made between the city and the defendant without the intervention of a judge. Terms are agreed to, a fine is paid and judgment is deferred. There’s no probation and if in a year’s time the defendant has managed to stay out of trouble, the charge is dropped.

There are a few holes in this arrangement. If a defendant enters into a continuance for dismissal agreement and winds up in some other suburban court with a domestic abuse charge, there is no guarantee the original charge will be brought to the judge’s attention. And word of the new offense may not make it back to the city prosecutor who negotiated a resolution to the first case.

“The message that we're sending the victim is this wasn't that big of a deal and you're also telling that to the defendant,” says Anderson.

Advocates who closely monitor domestic abuse cases point to another issue with these dismissals. “When I review reports I see new offenses coming in a year-and-a week or a-year-and-a-month on a pretty routine basis," says Laura Lind of Home Free, an organization that provides victim support in Hennepin County.

In the suburbs only 15 percent of the cases WATCH monitored were resolved with a continuance for dismissal — that’s just 144 cases. But in Minneapolis over the same period, less than 1 percent of cases were resolved this way. That’s just seven cases.

WATCH made a deliberate decision not to point fingers at individual municipalities or prosecutors and only crunched numbers in terms of suburbs versus downtown, writing “it is easy to focus on individual jurisdictions and disregard the bigger picture.”

But what if those 144 cases came from only a handful of cities; can you really say it’s a problem with the suburbs?

There is only one way to answer this question: do what WATCH did not and break it all down by municipality. Using data I obtained from the 4th District Court, which covers Hennepin County, I was able to look at all 3,272 non-felony domestic abuse cases that reached some resolution or another in 2010.

Of the 2,075 non-felony domestic abuse cases in the suburban courts to be resolved in 2010, 26 percent ended with a continuance for dismissal. Of the 1,187 resolved downtown, continuance for dismissal was just 9 percent of total dispositions.

In short: it’s a suburban problem — but there are also major discrepancies between suburban cities.

So which cities are driving the continuance for dismissal numbers?

I looked at each city with more than 50 resolved domestic abuse cases in 2010. Here they are, ranked by the percentage of total cases to end with a continuance for dismissal:

Champlin   72%
Hopkins   42%
New Hope   36%
St. Louis Park   34%
Brooklyn Park   32%
Plymouth   31%

At the bottom of the list were Bloomington (9 percent) and Minnetonka (8 percent). More on these two cities — and on Champlin, which tops the list — in a minute.

Brooklyn Park had the single largest number of continuances for dismissal at 133 — beating Minneapolis’ 107 and tripling the next highest suburban city count: St. Louis Park at 46.
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City Manager Jamie Verbrugge says there have been talks between Brookyn Park’s Chief of Police Michael Davis, who Verbrugge says is passionate about the issue, and prosecutor Roger Fellows, who the city has contracted with for more than 20 years. “There’s a desire to see less of these settlements. There’s a concern that they are not providing encouragement for the behavior change we’re looking for.”

So what’s the incentive for prosecutors to push continuance for dismissals?

There are all kinds of ways to answer this question. Sometimes it may simply be the right thing to do. But why such extreme discrepancies from city to city?  

There are two other factors that cannot be ignored in this era of budget cuts to the courts. First, a continuance for dismissal arrangement leaves a light footprint on the court calendar — it’s negotiated by the prosecutor and defense attorney and requires little of the court’s time. Probation officers are not part of the deal and neither is the pre-sentence investigation.

The other factor cannot be easily proven — but neither can it be ignored in these times of fiscal desperation. It’s the financial incentive. Whatever money is paid by the offender to earn a continuance for dismissal goes right back to the city — and that can be as much as $1,000. Even at just a few hundred dollars, cities with strained or declining revenue sources can generate tens of thousands of dollars through continuances for dismissal.

OK, let’s back up. What are the major differences between a suburban city like Brooklyn Park and Minneapolis in their approach to domestic abuse cases?

There is a big one. All but three Hennepin County municipalities contract out for prosecutor services.

The three cities that pay to maintain a city attorney’s office with full-time prosecutors and support staff are Minneapolis, Bloomington and Minnetonka.

In Minneapolis, the city attorney’s office has a staff of more than 100 attorneys divided into civil and criminal divisions. Within the criminal division, Minneapolis has its own domestic abuse team, which operates in a designated domestic abuse court.

In most of the county’s municipalities this level of special attention is difficult. A single attorney or firm will bid for a contract to prosecute whatever criminal cases come up (short of felonies, which are handled by the county).

How can suburban cities replicate some of this special attention to domestic abuse cases?

One option is for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to work with one of the four domestic abuse victims’ advocacy groups operating in the county — Cornerstone, Home Free, Project Peace and the Sojourner Project. Together they provide some level of advocacy service to every city in Hennepin except for Champlin, which has never opted for a relationship with any of these service providers.

“We’re certainly sensitive to the domestic violence issue,” says Champlin City Administrator Bret Heitkamp. “But we’ve lost $867,000 in funding since 2002 and our city council has taken the position that social services should not necessarily be the focus of local government and that Hennepin County is in a better position to provide those services.”

Home Free has full-service contracts with Golden Valley, New Hope and Plymouth and a less robust contract with Brooklyn Park. The organization also provides minimal services with no contract to 12 rural municipalities in the county.

Full-service, as explained by Lind of Home Free, looks like this: The police department sends word whenever they encounter a domestic abuse situation. An advocate gets in touch with the victim to assess their security and immediate needs. If it’s an order for protection or a quick move to a shelter, they help with that. They will also be with the victim throughout the court process. And they’ll be a liaison between the victim and the prosecutor, meeting with the prosecutor as needed so the victim can continue with work, school, and home life — only appearing in court when they absolutely must.

What happens to victims in cities without fully funded contracts with the organization? “If a victim in Greenfield needs an order for protection and she’s referred to our program, we’ll get an advocate on the phone with her if one is available. If not, she’ll need to go downtown. She won’t be contacted before each court date like a victim in Plymouth would be. She’ll get her emergency needs met but we won’t be able to do the follow-up support that is so badly needed.” These organizations work with victims from beginning to end and it’s resource intensive.

If consistency is what’s missing, what’s the fix?

Domestic abuse cases are complicated. Overburdened courts and city prosecutors are rarely specialists. Domestic violence cases are squeezed in between bar fights and speeding tickets. The suburban courts have taken some important steps — like seeing to it that accused abusers and their alleged victims have the same judge. Reform advocates from WATCH at the county level to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women at the state level agree that a shared approach in writing and using common language is a crucial first step.

That’s a step a few cities in Hennepin have taken in the form of a detailed prosecution plan for domestic violence, which can serve as a compass for contract prosecutors and could serve as a model for the majority of cities who do not have any such guiding document.

We’ll talk more about that in the next post in this series.

Are you a judge, attorney, or are you in law enforcement? I want to hear from you on these issues. Please click this link.

Or you can share your thoughts with the rest of our readers in the comments below. This is a long piece but it’s just the beginning of the conversation. What do you want to add?

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Comments (12)

I am surprised that there was no attempt to contact anyone other than Watch or domestic abuse advocates to comment on this study. I am also disappointed at the author's assumption that people who are charged with domestic assault are guilty of domestic assault. Cases are frequently dismissed and continued for dismissal because the person who is charged did not do it, or the case can not be proven. When someone makes a domestic abuse complaint the police usually err on the side of caution by arresting the accused and letting the court system sort it out later.
The assertion that someone who pleads to a disorderly conduct instead of the assault is not going to get the services he or she needs is simply not true. Probation will provide exactly the same services (treatment, counseling) on a disorderly cconduct.
I mention just a few of the problems with this story. I see a request for those of us in the system to write in if something was missed. Why is that obligation placed on us? Why is it not the author's responsibility to present a more balanced look at how this study might be interpreted?

Mary F. Moriarty
Managing Attorney - Adult Division
Hennepin County Public Defender's Office

Great piece of work. Keep it up.

I want to add: thank you! really really important work. The "glamour" of investigative reporting often comes from endless number-crunching and that could not be more obvious here. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Kudos to WATCH for undertaking this logistically complicated study, and for presenting the findings in a non-blaming, non-sensationalized way.

WATCH can only report what's been observed and what the numbers show, and Susan Herridge has it right. It takes a bit of good old-fashioned investigative reporting to flesh out the story behind the numbers, as Jeff Severns Guntzel did here. Thanks to Jeff and to MinnPost.

Full disclosure, I'm a founder of WATCH, and yes, I'm very proud of our staff and our consistent good work.

Mary, I really meant it when I said this was the beginning of a conversation. This story is, in many ways, a look at the issue (or several issues) through the eyes of people who advocate for victims. That's a valid lens and worthy of the space I've given it.

My very explicit request for feedback from judges, attorneys (on both sides), and law enforcement--in the comments or off the record through the form posted--is my attempt to bring in as many voices as possible from all sides of this issue. And I assure you it's working.

The way things happen on this blog, all sides may not always make it into each post. I have the space to give different sides of an issue more breathing space and I am always experimenting with that--working other views and issues into multiple posts rather than cramming them all into one post--which often leads to a sort of tokenism anyways.

I hope you'll stay tuned. There is no final word. This is a place for conversation. Thank you for your part in it.

This article does not give the complete story - too much oriented toward domestic-abuse professions. From the defendant's point of view, read this narrative: http://www.billmcgaughey.com/domesticabuse.html.

Mary,

Having been part of a family with these issues (thankfully in the past) I think "you doth protest too much".

Many cases are never reported and when they do come to the point of being reported there's usually very doubt as to what has happened. I'm sure there are times when "they didn't do it" but they're relatively few.

Additional data that would be helpful in judging whether under-funding and less robust pursuit of cases is a problem:
• Does the incidence of repeat offenses vary by suburb?
• Are there differences in serious assaults or murders by municipality?
• If cops err on the side of caution and make arrests where the accused are innocent, as comment 1 suggests, why the disparity among departments in bringing charges?

We had a friend, one of many WATCH volunteers, who spent many hours in court observing domestic abuse cases, all while quietly knitting. He helped us understand the critical nature of the process in the prevention of violence and death.

Of course false accusations do enter the system, and the accused deserve fair process. It is not surprising to see a post from our vastly overworked and underfunded public defenders pointing out the burden that domestic abuse cases put on them.

I expect the followup article will clarify some questions, and I commend the author for getting into the details.

A stunning example of how privatization of public services endangers public safety and puts the lives of women and children at risk. Excellent article.

I am from a town outside of Hennepin county, but find frustration with our judicial system when it comes to domestic abuse. I have been on the victim side of domestic abuse. Even with a restraining order in place, multiple counts of violation and two arrests, the consequences issued were more or less a slap on the hand and the judge saying "You are wasting my time. Get out of my court." The probation period is now up and a short one at that. One day after the probation expired it has started again, not to the same degree, but none the less it is starting again. He is learning how to walk right on the line, without crossing over, but enough to have an impact on my daily life. I certainly agree that if the courts were harder the first time around, there would be less repeat offenders. When offenders learn that the consequences are not that harsh and the judges appear to be annoyed with having to deal with the case in the first place, there is little to prevent them from repeating. We need to stop this trend.

Learn something new every day. You wrote: "The last major discrepancy is a mouthful: continuances for dismissal. It’s simple, really. A deal is made between the city and the defendant without the intervention of a judge. Terms are agreed to, a fine is paid and judgment is deferred. There’s no probation and if in a year’s time the defendant has managed to stay out of trouble, the charge is dropped."

As a defendant, I chose the option of continuance for dismissal. Despite your statement that "there's no probation", I was put on a year's probation after an evaluator thought I needed anger-management classes after I complained that the police made false statements on the report.