Friday, July 29, 2005

California Attorney General Finds System Fails Victims, Families

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer released a report this week revealing that the criminal justice system is failing to enforce California's domestic violence laws. Joined by statewide leaders, Lockyer called for implementation of 5 key recommendations to reduce domestic abuse and challenged local law enforcement and judicial officers to increase and improve their efforts to stop the cycle of family violence."The laws already on the books should be holding batterers accountable for their violent behavior, but the criminal justice system often fails to enforce them," Lockyer said. "System fatigue is not an excuse for domestic abuse. We are going to shift a culture of complacency into a culture of compliance."The report is based on an extensive two-year assessment by Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s Task Force on Local Criminal Justice Response to Domestic Violence -- a 26-member group of experts and leaders in law enforcement, the courts, victim advocacy, public health and the legislature. Key report findings are:

- California's courts are not issuing restraining orders, even when required under law.
- Many restraining orders that do get issued are never served.
- There is often lax enforcement of restraining orders, especially firearm prohibitions.
- Community-based victim advocates are not used by all prosecuting offices to assist domestic violence victims.
- Attendance at court-ordered programs for batterers is not tracked and many never complete the program.

A serious lack of coordination plagues criminal justice agencies' approach to domestic violence.
"Our report includes disturbing examples of agencies that have failed to respond to domestic violence victims, failed to enforce the law and failed to work in collaboration," said Casey Gwinn, chair of the Attorney General's task force. "Yet, we have also seen firsthand how much can be accomplished when there is strong local leadership and cooperation among agencies."In response to the findings, Lockyer has sponsored several legislative solutions. AB 1288 (Chu), would authorize arraignment courts to prohibit domestic violence defendants from possessing firearms. That bill would also allow local law enforcement to advise a domestic violence victim whether the batterer possesses a firearm, according to a Department of Justice's (DOJ) database. SB 720 (Kuehl), would help ensure that family court restraining orders are entered into Department of Justice's database so that the proof does not rest with victims. Among the report's recommendations:

- Enforce the laws that already exist. Court officials should issue more restraining orders and get them into the system. Batterers must surrender their guns and if they do not, law enforcement must confiscate the weapons.
- Local counties should adopt a successful Long Beach model where family court judges convene informally on an on-going basis with local agency representatives, the District and City Attorneys' offices, court officials, law enforcement agencies and advocacy organizations.
- Break down the walls built by a compartmentalized system by co-locating criminal justice and victim service agencies, as has happened at San Diego's Family Justice Center.
- The courts and the programs designed to get batterers to control and change their behavior must consistently impose sanctions on batterers who fail to attend classes.
- Improve computer database systems so that restraining orders get into the system, and so that attendance at required batterer intervention classes are carefully tracked.

"The broad spectrum of interests represented on the task force, from judges to prosecutors to a public defender and from law enforcement to victim advocates, proved to be an asset – we reached consensus on each finding," said Tom Orloff, Alameda County District Attorney and a task force member. "Consensus was achieved because of the compelling testimony provided at the regional hearings and the information obtained from hundreds of practitioners. We all need to improve the way we respond to domestic violence. We need to strengthen our efforts to protect victims, prosecute batterers and stop this devastating crime."Among the report's positive findings is a pilot project in Orange County's domestic violence court to confiscate prohibited firearms. The court subjects all defendants at initial arraignment to a criminal protective order that requires them to surrender their firearms within 24 hours. The court also requires these defendants to contact DOJ, which checks the information in its Automated Firearms System and enforces the firearms prohibition."We have seen far too many domestic violence cases result in tragedy after they entered the criminal justice system," stated Chief Susan Manheimer of the San Mateo Police Department and a task force member. "The task force traveled throughout the state to identify inconsistencies as well as practices that will prevent further tragedies. It is important that our local criminal justice entities work together to strengthen our response to domestic violence and move forward to adopt these findings and recommendations."

"The task force report gives domestic violence advocates an opportunity to discuss its many findings and recommendations with our partners in the criminal justice system," stated Karen Cooper, Board President of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. "As a victim advocate, I especially appreciate that the report addresses reducing the burdens the criminal justice system can place on victims who are already traumatized."The Task Force focused its investigation on 10 target counties, interviewing hundreds of practitioners and holding 6 public hearings to examine how well local criminal justice agencies respond to and deal with domestic violence issues, identify programs that work well and determine how to improve efforts to protect and prevent family violence.Lockyer's decision to appoint the task force was prompted in part by the findings of a study he and Senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, commissioned to determine the effectiveness of laws and practices aimed at reducing domestic violence.

Published in June 2003, the 51-page Senate Office of Research report showed that while California has taken critical steps to protect domestic violence victims, a comprehensive assessment of those efforts was still needed.Domestic violence statistics collected by DOJ show California local law enforcement agencies received 186,439 domestic violence-related calls for assistance in 2004. During that same year, there were 169 murders committed as a result of intimate partner violence and 46,353 adults and juveniles were arrested for spousal abuse under Penal Code section 273.5.Additional information about the Attorney General's efforts to combat domestic violence and copies of Keeping the Promise – Victim Safety and Batterer Accountability are available at the Attorney General's Crime and Violence Prevention Center web site at (Source: California Attorney General's Office)

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