Special Idaho Court A Model In Fight Against Domestic Violence

Aug 26, 2014

Rick and Tess are working together in Ada County's Domestic Violence Court
Credit Michael Martin

Rick and Tess laugh a lot. After 22 years together, they finish each others sentences and tease each other constantly. “I’ve got the one-in-a-million,” says Rick of his wife. “Yeah, me too,” laughs Tess. The pair's marriage hasn't always been easy, three years ago Rick was arrested on domestic violence charges.

Rick and Tess didn’t want to use their real names, but they did want to talk about their experience with Ada County’s domestic violence court. This special court has become a model for judges around the country in the fight against domestic violence.

Last year, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women picked the Ada County Domestic Violence Court as one of just three mentor courts in the country. Since then, Ada County has been sharing information and helping guide other courts to find new ways to handle these types of cases.

Rick and Tess ended up in Ada County's Domestic Violence Court (DV Court) about three years ago when the pair were having what Tess calls a mutual argument. She says there was a physical altercation and Rick was arrested and convicted of domestic violence.  

“Rick was a pretty angry man there for a little bit,” says Tess. He agrees. “My priorities were off, I think that I looked at objects and money and things instead of feelings or people," says Rick. "I was in a race against myself.”

Domestic violence court is different from a regular criminal court, where defendants and victims can get bogged down in the system, and often face a variety of different judges.

Judge Carolyn Minder created DV Court in Ada County, after spending eight years in a traditional court. “It’s a huge, high volume court,” Minder says. “I would arraign somebody, and their cases would be set out three to four months for a pre-trial conference. The difference in our court is that one week after arraignment, they see a domestic violence judge and the discovery is complete."

That means within the first week, court officials have already talked to the defendant, the victim, and the family. The goal is to resolve a case in less than two months. A traditional court can take more than twice that long before the case is heard. Minder says by then, DV Court defendants have already pled their case and started treatment programs.  

“These cases resolve in such a short window that families are less disrupted,” according to Minder. “They don’t get evicted, they’re no longer homeless, kids don’t have to go into foster care because they're homeless, so when the criminal justice system intersects with the violence, it completely changes what the outcome can be, if you do it quickly and thoughtfully.”

Minder created the court in 2006. “I felt that victims were being lost in the process and that victims weren’t being heard and that we, as a society, we were not doing what we needed to do for families of violence.

Judge Carolyn Minder and Judge James Cawthon are the two judges in Ada County's Domestic Violence Court.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

Her vision was “one-family, one-judge.” Instead of hopping from criminal to family court, defendants and victims deal with just one judge, either Minder or fellow judge James Cawthon. “They’ve got one judge, they’ve got one court who knows their situation, knows their family and who can quickly respond to the criminal case and also address the issues pertaining to the family and the children involved,” Cawthon says.

Cawthon and Minder are far more likely to put defendants on supervised probation, in DV Court, as opposed to traditional court where it's less likely to happen. That’s because DV Court emphasizes not just speed and a one-judge mentality, but puts a lot of focus on defendant accountability and changing bad behaviors.  

Defendants spend up to a year in classes to help with things like substance abuse and violence prevention. They must check in regularly with the court. Minder provides encouragement, if things are going well, or new penalties, if the defendant doesn’t take an active role in treatment.

“We truly want to have this be meaningful in their lives so that we give them the tools they need not to be back before the court,” says Minder. “And they change their lives to the point that their children aren’t going to following in their steps.”

Speed and judicial leadership make this court special says Katie Crank, senior manager of Domestic Violence Programs at the Center for Court Innovation. The center helps jurisdictions set up specialized courts and evaluates how they are working.

Crank has found that fast-tracking cases helps stop the cycle of violence. “Because domestic violence has a lot to do with power and control,” Crank believes, “and a person who’s a victim of domestic violence can have their safety really threatened by their abusive partner, it’s often very important to address the underlying issues as soon as possible.”

We were not doing what we needed to do for families of violence. - Judge Carolyn Minder

Judicial leadership is also critical. Crank says without judges like Minder and Cawthon, a court like this wouldn’t work. “We have learned over and over again  how important it is that a judge or judges buy into this model in order for it to be successful,” Crank says.

A 2010 Idaho Supreme Court review of DV court found more defendants pled guilty than in traditional court, they were more closely monitored, and they had more meetings with probation officers and judges than traditional court offenders.

When polled, victims reported feeling safe. And DV court defendants tended to have a positive outlook on the process. That's something Rick, who is going through the process with Tess, agrees with. “I do appreciate what they’ve done and how it’s gone, I mean honestly, it’s been pretty fair, I don’t disagree with it.”

Rick’s case is up for review Tuesday. Rick and Tess say after almost three years since the incident that sent them to domestic violence court, they’re ready to try things on their own. They feel like they’ve been set up to succeed. 

“With this court system, it does force you to take accountability for your actions and for your life,” says Tess. Rick chimes in, “But it’s also up to the individual how far they’re going to take it. But if you can just accept it, this is your mistake, you got yourself where you’re at, just get through it, learn from it.”

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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