Domestic violence charges most frequently dropped

Courts 'not adept at handling' cases

Domestic violence is one of the most common crimes around, and it can be one of the most serious: Three times in the last three years, a Lawrence-area woman has been killed and her boyfriend or partner charged in the death.

But it’s anyone’s guess as to how consistently domestic-violence cases are being prosecuted.

Partly because of the unique nature of the crime, prosecutors acknowledge charges are dropped much more frequently in domestic cases than in other crimes. Factors driving that include the back-and-forth nature of relationships, the potential for intimidation of the victim and a law that requires police to make arrests whether the case is ultimately strong enough to prosecute or not.

No good numbers

Joyce Grover, legal advocacy coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said there are no good statistics kept on how many domestic-violence arrests statewide end in charges being filed – and what happens from there.

“We don’t really know why cases are not being filed, why they might be dismissed, how many of them result in a plea agreement, how many diversions there are,” she said.

And tracking the cases through Douglas County District Courts is no exception. According to police agencies, there were more than 300 domestic-battery cases in 2005 in Douglas County that ended in arrest, but court records show there were only 146 people charged with domestic battery.

Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said those numbers don’t sound right, given that in the first six months of this year his office filed 127 domestic-battery cases.

This photo, taken by a family member of Tara Balch's in early April, shows how she looked about five hours after an incident in which she said her boyfriend punched and choked her. Balch is now upset at how prosecutors in Jefferson County have handled her case.

Of the 146 cases that turned up in court records for 2005, about one-third ended with charges being dismissed. Branson said that’s an unusually high number compared with other crimes – but that domestic battery isn’t a typical crime.

“There are cases where we will see that it is in the best interests of the state and the victim to not proceed with the case – that there have been enough remedial measures put into place that we feel it isn’t appropriate to go forward,” he said. “If you look at property crime or other person crimes, you’re not dealing with an ongoing relationship of people. … If the continued prosecution of the matter has the effect of destroying a good or a viable relationship that somebody made mistakes during, that’s contrary to our goals.”

Branson said the traditional court system simply may not be set up to handle domestic-violence cases.

“The fact of the matter is … we’re not adept at handling these cases yet,” Branson said. “I think some jurisdictions have made steps in the right direction by having domestic-violence courts.”

Arrest required

Grover said the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a federal law, signaled a change in how domestic battery was handled by the courts. It created things such as protection-from-abuse orders that could be enforced across state lines, more money for police training and support for prosecutors’ offices in handling domestic-violence cases.

A Kansas law now requires police to make an arrest if they arrive at a home and find evidence of domestic violence. But advocates say that what happens when the case goes to court can vary greatly, depending on the county.

In some parts of the state, attorneys and judges still view domestic battery as an interpersonal problem instead of a crime, said Sarah Terwelp, executive director of Women’s Transitional Care Services in Lawrence.

‘Full-out beating’

Topeka resident Tara Balch says that’s the way she felt she was treated in Jefferson County after an incident in early April in which she was battered by her then-boyfriend. She said she got a broken nose, two black eyes, a chipped tooth and handprint-shaped bruises on her back.

“It was a full-out beating,” she said. “I was literally and legitimately scared for my life.”

When she met with county prosecutor Michael Hayes, she learned her boyfriend would be given a chance to apply for diversion and have his charge dropped.

“The prosecuting attorney seemed to think that it was two drunken people hitting each other,” Balch said. “He told me he was dropping charges, and I began to cry. … He said this was his policy – to drop charges on the first offense.”

Hayes declined repeated requests to grant an interview about Balch’s case or how he handles domestic-violence cases. Balch has met with Hayes twice. On the second visit, she said, she brought along advocates from Women’s Transitional Care Services, from a Topeka battered-women’s agency and from Atty. Gen. Phill Kline’s office.

Her boyfriend is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 19 for a diversion hearing.

“In Jefferson County, I would say there’s a lot of education that needs to happen about what domestic violence is,” Terwelp said. “From the information I have, they’re still kind of back in the period of the ’70s, you might say, or even the ’60s, where they see it as a relationship issue that needs to be dealt with privately.”

Terwelp said Douglas County, too, could stand improvements in how domestic-violence victims are treated. She said that the Lawrence area lacks a “communitywide” response to domestic-violence, and that there are ways to make the process of going to court easier on victims – for example, by allowing them to testify on closed-circuit TV or by finding ways in which cases can be prosecuted without their testimony.

As the system now works, people such as Balch must go to great lengths to see their cases through, she said

“It’s placing all the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of where it should be, which is on the batterer,” she said.