Federal funding to boost efforts in responding to domestic violence

Anoka County has received a second round of federal funding in its efforts to improve the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence cases, specifically those where the victim is judged to be at high risk of serious injury and death.

In 2010, the county received a two-year $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) to launch what it called “the community defined solutions to violence against women program.”

The grant has been renewed for another two years – through Sept. 30, 2014.

The $300,000 received by the county during this funding cycle was the maximum available, according to Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo.

“The program has been successful,” Palumbo said.

The purpose of the program has not changed with the renewal of the grant – to more effectively address lethality in domestic violence cases beginning with initial police contact continuing during the court process.

This has focused on lethality assessments at the initial point of police contact and fast tracking cases through the court system.

According to Palumbo, when the program first stated, the lethality assessments were only performed by the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbia Heights Police Department.

But during the two years of the first grant cycle, the lethality assessments have expanded to include all law enforcement agencies in the county, Palumbo said.

The assessment determines the risk to the victim from the offender and that is updated throughout the process based on bail evaluation and pre-trial information and that information is provided to the courts.

The county is working with Alexandra House, the shelter for battered women and their children, based in Anoka County.

With the grant funds, Alexandra House has hired an advocate to provide victim services.

And the Anoka County Corrections Department hired a full-time probation officer to, among other duties, monitor high-risk offenders in the court-ordered intensive domestic abuse pre-trial program (IDAP) which provides treatment while the case is in progress, not after disposition.

That position has been extended for the next two years under the renewed grant, said Dylan Warkentin, community corrections director, in a memo to the Anoka County Board.

Initially, the grant was specifically targeted at felony domestic violence cases, according to Palumbo.

But by the end of the first grant period, Sept. 30, 2012, some city attorney offices in the county had also come on board with their gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor domestic violence cases, Palumbo said.

Now, in the second funding cycle, attorneys representing all the cities in the county have agreed to be part of the program, so all domestic violence cases – felony, gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor – will fall under the violence against women umbrella, he said.

Another component of the project has been to fast track domestic violence cases through the court process.

“This has been very successful,” Palumbo said.

“It used to be anywhere from 150 to 180 days for a case to be completed from charging to sentencing and our goal was to get it down to 90 days.”

According to Paul Young, chief of the violent crimes division in the Anoka County Attorney’s Office, of 142 cases that went through the court system from September 2011 to September 2012, the average duration was 93 days.

But that number was skewed by some 20 cases that took a lot longer to resolve for one reason or another – for example, the defendant failing to appear in court necessitating a warrant to be issued for their arrest, Young said.

“Take out those 20 cases and the average was down to 76 days,” he said.

Achieving that has been due to the cooperation of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorney, corrections department and the courts, Young said.

And it also means that the victim gets closure on the case a lot sooner than in the past.

According to Emily Oskey, county victim witness program coordinator, the grant dollars primarily go to pay for the probation officer in the corrections department and the Alexandra House advocate.

In addition, the grant dollars pay for a staff support person, who works on a part-time basis to do the paperwork and monitor the quality of the program, a requirement of the justice department, Oskey said.

But a requirement of the grant is that a portion of the dollars, $10,000, be set aside for training people involved in the program, she said.

The grant dollars also pay for equipment, printing and supplies associated with the program, Oskey said.

While it does not receive any of the federal money, the county’s victim witness program also provides advocacy for victims in these domestic violence cases during the court process itself, she said.

“We try to make sure the victim is as comfortable as possible throughout the court process,” Oskey said.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]