There won’t be a new television show called “St. Clair County Special Victims’ Unit” but a $1.95 million federal grant will allow prosecutors to more aggressively pursue domestic violence and sexual assault and advocate for the victims.
The new unit will be called St. Clair County Domestic Violence and Special Victims’ Unit and will seek to improve investigation, prosecution and services to victims in sexual assault and domestic violence cases. The money for the new unit came from a U.S. Department of Justice fund established by the Violence Against Women Act, said State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly. St. Clair County competed against 31 other counties in southern Illinois for the grant. The Violence Against Women Act seeks to improve criminal justice and community-based responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. U.S. Pres. Barack Obama reauthorized the act in 2013, providing law enforcement with better resources to investigate sex crimes, giving colleges more tools to educate students about dating violence and sex assault, and continues to allow relief for immigrant victims of domestic violence.
The grant will fund the salaries of three prosecutors, one probation officer, two sheriff’s deputies, five advocates for the Violence Prevention Center and one advocate for Call for Help. Under the grant award, St. Clair County will receive $650,000 per year for three years, then can reapply.
“Domestic and sexual violence occurrence rates are likely on par with the rest of the country but, as you know, getting cases better investigated is a challenge for us, especially in communities with low resources for law enforcement,” Kelly said. “We have greatly increased domestic violence prosecution and are making progress on sex assaults but we have to do better and this team approach will help.”
As part of the approach, sheriff’s deputies began asking victims in domestic assault calls 11 questions to determine whether the domestic violence could escalate to death or serious injury.
“There is nobody in this room that is more passionate about ending domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Sheriff Rick Watson. “We are happy to be a part of that.”
Adding one probation officer will allow closer supervision of the more than 200 people on probation for domestic violence, said Ernest Rush, interim director of St. Clair County Probation Offfice.
Cheryl Compton, executive director for Call For Help, said one in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Advocacy can help victims have more a voice in the legal system, Compton said.
“This is a natural next step,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Belleville News-Democrat published a series entitled “Violation of Trust” that reported that 70 percent of sexual assault and abuse cases reported to police in Southern Illinois were not prosecuted. The article compared the number of sex crimes reported to police to the number of cases filed by prosecutors in 32 counties from 2005 to 2012. Only 18 percent of felony sex cases reported to St. Clair County police were prosecuted. During that nine-year period, St. Clair County police departments presented one in three reports involving adult offenders to prosecutors, about 620 cases. Of those, 205 were charged. Since Kelly took office in 2010, prosecutors have charged about half of the cases reported to police.