Scott MacKay Commentary
7:48 am
Mon April 9, 2012

Why are so many batterers getting a free pass?

PROVIDENCE, RI –

After more than two decades of progress against the scourge of domestic violence our state appears to have recently fallen behind.

A report done by the Justice Assistance group shows that between December 1, 2011 and February 3, 2012 that nearly 60 percent of domestic abuse cases in Rhode Island District Courts resulted in charges being dismissed.

The figures vary a bit around the state but in total they paint a bleak portrait. "This is outrageous," says Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Coalition against Domestic Violence.

Even worse, says Jonathan Houston, director of Justice Assistance, is that the courts are not referring batterers to anger management therapy programs at the rate they did several years ago.

Most domestic violence is the result of men beating their spouses or partners or stalking them. Domestic violence once carried a sexist stigma - the victims were too often blamed for abuse.

For the past 25 years domestic violence awareness has grown as advocates for women lobbied at the State House for tougher laws. And the police, prosecutors and doctors and nurses were given better training so that they could identify and successfully punish batterers. Programs in schools have helped build awareness of controlling dating behavior that is often the first sign of potential abuse.

Women have been told for years that they should not suffer abuse in silence and should report these incidents to the authorities. So the high dismissal rate is sending the worst possible message to the mostly women victims says DeBare. "We've spent 25 years telling people to call the police, but what do you think is going to happen when 60 percent of the cases are getting dismissed. Why should people bother to call the police."

There are already too many hurdles to reporting domestic assaults. What everyone who works in this field or seriously studies the issue knows that is it very rare that police are called at the first instance of domestic violence.

The experts say the laws don't appear to be the problem; Rhode Island has strong domestic assault laws. And weak prosecution is not a problem at the Superior Court level, which handles the felony assault charges brought by the attorney general's office.

So it is time to take a serious look at the District Courts and the handling of domestic violence justice in the majority of misdemeanor cases, which cover first-time offenders.

These cases are investigated by local police departments and prosecuted by city and town solicitors.

Craig Berke, spokesman for the state court system, said the courts haven't crunched such data recently but that he will bring the Justice Assistance report to the attention of District Court judges.

It appears that something has gone seriously wrong with the training of police and prosecutors. In Providence, our state's largest city, the police have not undergone domestic violence training in eight years, says DeBare.

Now is the time for the police and prosecutors to take ownership of this crucial matter that means so much for the stability of Rhode Island families. And it is well past the point for state lawmakers to launch a probe. A State House that has plenty of time for such frivolities as handing out license plates to retired judges and getting popped for drunk driving ought to buckle down and find out why so many batterers and getting free passes.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.