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April 2012 Verve: Examining CTs Domestic Violence Courts

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Domestic violence cases present unique challenges to criminal courts. Battered women often do not behave like victims of other crimes. Domestic violence perpetrators are intricately connected to the everyday existence of their victims, which often leads to increased coercion and manipulation and a heightened risk of recidivism. In recognition of these challenges, specialized domestic violence courts have developed in pockets around the country in an effort to provide a mechanism to keep victims of domestic violence safe, while at the same time hold offenders accountable for their crimes. Connecticut’s first specialized domestic violence docket court was created in 1996. Since that time, specialized DV docket courts have been created in 11 of Connecticut’s 20 G.A. Courts.#

The Lack of Common Goals & Strategies For Specialized Docket Courts Hinders Evaluation

As the Connecticut Judicial Branch noted in a 2012 report,# stakeholders from across the State appear to have diametrically opposing viewpoints as to whether or not these specialized domestic violence docket courts are effective. However, this divergence of opinion is not surprising. Connecticut’s specialized docket courts have little to no uniformity or common practice – even with respect to which cases are referred to the specialized courts – which makes quantifying their effectiveness an impossible task.

Consider family violence convictions statistics over the last three years (see chart below). There appears to be little difference between docket and non-docket court sites. In fact, Bridgeport and Hartford, two of the oldest specialized courts, show an almost 30% difference in their conviction rates (18% to 45%). Both courts are docket sites, but they embrace very different practices and philosophies. At present, it is simply unworkable to compare docket courts as a singular group to non-docket courts, or even to each other, without acknowledging these differences.
If we want to be able to create meaningful measurements as to the effectiveness of our specialized courts, the State must set uniform goals and strategies. Examining what is happening in other specialized courts nationally can assist in this development.

Creating Common Goals & Strategies

The Center for Court Innovation, a technical assistance provider for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, submitted a study in December 2009, which explored how specialized courts had evolved across the country.# They found overwhelming consensus amongst respondents with respect to the primary rationales for creating specialized courts for domestic violence: increased victim safety, increased offender
accountability, and deterrence of future violence.#

The most common goals cited by specialized domestic violence courts across the country can be coalesced into six broad ideas:#

victim safety;
offender accountability; 
reduced recidivism;
informed decision making;
coordinated response;
efficient case processing;# and
correct application of statutory requirements.

There are a number of methods repeatedly cited in much of the literature that has been compiled on specialized docket courts as core strategies used to implement these goals.

Dedicated Personnel

Non-rotating staff is a critical component of the specialized docket court structure.# This would ideally include specialized judges, who would have an opportunity to gain substantive expertise in the unique legal and personal issues presented by domestic violence cases.# A number of descriptive studies suggest that the use of dedicated staff members may enhance the understanding of unique issues among attorneys, probation officers, and services providers, which improves the quality of decisions being made in the courts.#

Linking Victims to Appropriate Services

A key component of enhancing victim safety is ensuring access and exposure to community services. In two separate studies, the percentage of victims who were linked to advocates and community services increased exponentially through the use of specialized courts.# Additionally, at least four studies found that victims were more satisfied when the case was heard in a specialized court.#

Enhanced Training for Stakeholders

Developing the level of expertise necessary for the specialized courts to reach their full potential requires more intensive training than just a Domestic Violence 101 equivalency.# The dedicated personnel, including the presiding judge(s), should be continuously exposed to innovative ideas and practices that can then be implemented within the specialized court structure.

Coordinated Community Response

A coordinated community response is dependent on creating successful channels for information sharing. To effectively address victim safety, and where batterer intervention services are utilized as part of the court response, courts must necessarily rely on information from community based programs as well as governmental agencies.# Information sharing is significantly more difficult when DV cases are spread throughout the courthouse on multiple calendars, as opposed to when those cases are aggregated on a dedicated docket.

Judicial Monitoring

Judicial monitoring is a critical component of offender accountability.#  This includes: bringing an offender back to the court on a regular basis, seeking progress reports from victims and service providers and imposing timely sanctions for non-compliance.

Developing Best Practices & Allocating Resources within the Specialized Docket Courts

Although Connecticut is still a long way from the kind of  uniformity that would permit the State to harness enough quantifiable data to comprehensively evaluate the effectiveness of our specialized courts, a handful of these courts have been successfully implementing some common strategies in recent years, which allows for some degree of comparison.

Senior Assistant States Attorney Nancy Dolinksy, a veteran prosecutor with more than twenty years of experience, is the dedicated domestic violence prosecutor in the Stamford Superior Court. Through her tenure on the domestic violence docket, Attorney Dolinsky has observed marked benefits of the specialized court approach when some of the above mentioned best practice approaches are implemented successfully. “The docket court structure allows me to utilize judicial monitoring as a tool to ensure offender compliance and monitor victim safety pre-trial,” says Dolinsky. “I will frequently use the deferred sentencing method for repeat offenders, or those offenders who have exhibited a higher level of violence, in lieu of diversion. By requiring a conditional plea and ordering an offender to the Explore Program, we increase the stakes for non-compliance. This approach keeps the cases open on the docket for a longer period of time, but we have found it to be highly successful.”

The deferred sentencing model that Dolinsky refers to is a best practice strategy that has been recommended by national bodies, such as the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for many years. It speaks to many of the common goals cited above: victim safety, offender accountability, coordinated response, and efficient case processing. This model was initially introduced in the State of Connecticut through Connecticut’s Domestic Violence Resource Prosecutor. 

For the last several years, the Connecticut Chief States Attorneys Office had provided a DV Resource Prosecutor, who was tasked with providing technical assistance to some of the specialized courts in order to enhance each court’s response to domestic violence through the implementation of best practice methods, such as the deferred sentencing model referenced by Dolinsky.
The DV Resource Prosecutor had been actively providing technical assistance to the specialized courts in Bridgeport, Derby, Stamford, New London and Waterbury.

The efforts made by the DV Resource Prosecutor have resulted in a certain degree of uniformity amongst these five courts. And it appears the practices implemented in these courts are, in fact, showing a positive impact, at least on conviction rates. In the first chart (above), there was seemingly no difference in family violence conviction rates when comparing docket sites to non-docket sites. However, in examining those five courts that have received technical assistance from the DV Resource Prosecutor, which have been actively incorporating a degree of uniformity through the use of similar strategies as a result of this assistance, are all ranked in the top eight of the twenty G.A. courts in conviction rates over the last three years.

This data would seem to support the idea that aggregating domestic violence cases together in one forum will not, by itself, translate to a functioning specialized court. It is the setting of goals and the development of concrete best practice strategies that will get us where we want to be in terms of effectiveness. Only when we have implemented those successfully, can we begin to expect measurable outcomes. Additionally, it is not the quantity of resources, but the creativity with which those resources are utilized that makes the difference, as evidenced by the fact that substantial resources have also been invested in those docket court sites that represent the bottom 50% of the conviction analysis. 

Of course, there are other benchmarks, outside of conviction rates, that are important to quantify – chief among them is evaluating our ability to use these specialized courts to enhance the safety of victims. But, at least we have a place to start.

DVCC360 looks forward to working with all of our community partners as we continue to examine ways in which to not only standardize those best practices that appear to already be  making a difference, but also as we search for new ways to enhance our specialized courts and realize their full potential.



1  Connecticut’s specialized domestic violence docket courts are located in: Bridgeport, Danielson, Derby, Hartford, Middetown, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury. However, the specialized DV courts in Danielson, Derby and Middletown have only just recently begun operating as official specialized court sites.  
2  State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, Report on the Principles and Effectiveness of The Family Violence Education Program and Connecticut’s Domestic Violence Dockets and Related Programs, submitted pursuant to section 20 of P.A. 11-152, An Act Concerning Domestic Violence (February 2012).
3  See Labriola, M., et al., A National Portrait of Domestic Violence Courts, submitted to the National Institute of Justice (December 2009) (NIJ Award No. 2006-WG-BX-0001).
4  See Id., pg, ix.
5  See Id., pgs 1-2.
6  It is important to note that, where a jurisdiction prioritizes victim safety and efforts to reduce recidivism, these goals can conflict with efficient case processing. See Labriola, M. et al., pg 7. 
7  See Moore, S., pg 2, Two Decades of Specialized Domestic Violence Courts: A Review of the Literature. New York, NY: Center for Court Innovation (November 2009).
8  See Id., pg 1.
9  See Labriola, M., et al., pg 8; See also Keilitz, S., Specialization of domestic violence case management in the courts: A national survey. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts (2001).
10  See Id., pg 8, (citing a Brooklyn study wherein the percentage of victims l inked to advocacy services increased from 55% to 100% and a Tennessee study wherein the percentage of victims linked to advocacy services increased from approximately 0% to 56%).
11  See Moore, S., pg 9.
12  See Generally Sack, E., Creating a Domestic Violence Court. San Francisco, CA: Family Violence Prevention Fund (May 2002); See also Labriola, M., et al., pg 81 (stakeholders identified knowledge of and a sensitivity to the dynamics of DV among staff and judges as an important component of a successful specialize court).
13  See Sack, E., pg 6.
14  See Moore, S., pg 3 (judicial monitoring is a common tool to implement the goals of a specialized court); See also Sack, E., pg 6 (close monitoring and swift and certain consequences for non-compliance are critical components of enhancing offender accountability).