Madison County leaders hope a new approach to domestic violence cases might ease the trauma on families and reduce repeat offenses.
For example, a couple might be going through a contentious divorce. There may be an order of protection issued. And one of them may have a criminal charge of domestic battery pending. Under the current, traditional system, each of those issues may be on a different docket, with different court times, appearing before different judges.
“Those things are compartmentalized, so there is no over-arching look at the entire circumstance,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons. “Those cases all being handled separately is much less efficient, and there may be a more effective way to deal with it.”
Some guys, you can stick in treatment forever and it won’t do any good… There is no one thing that says, ‘This guy is going to kill his partner.’
Mike Allen | Madison County probation officer
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In Winnebago County in Northern Illinois, the 17th Judicial Circuit received a $300,000 federal grant to create a domestic violence coordinated court, allowing coordination of civil and criminal cases pending regarding domestic violence. Court files are associated so that the cases are brought before one judge, who can then make fully informed decisions and get at the underlying issues that may be contributing to the domestic violence.
“The model they’re using incorporates more avenues for treatment, for addressing other problems: not just an anger management model, but if there are other issues such as mental health or substance abuse,” Gibbons said. “It’s addressing the whole problem, not just looking at it through a narrow lens. We’re hopeful it will reduce future violence.”
Winnebago officials reached out to Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons last week, and soon Madison County officials will visit their courts to observe how the process works. Gibbons said he believes bringing all the cases together allows a sharper focus on the problem. In some cases, it will lead to harsher prosecutions, and definitely better efficiency, Gibbons said.
Accountability is a significant part of it, so the probation department will be heavily involved, Gibbons said. Judy Dallas, Madison County’s probation director, said while she is concerned about the resources of her department, she thinks this program would be very helpful for the county. “Domestic violence is a huge issue, and to draw those dockets together makes sense,” she said. “The treatment part of this is so important, and one of our biggest responsibilities is to ensure that they get the treatment they need.”
For someone convicted of domestic battery, completion of a batterer’s program is usually required, Dallas said. The standard in Illinois is a minimum of 26 weeks in an authorized treatment program, with cognitive therapy where "they really get into the heart of what it is that causes someone to batter a spouse or family member," Dallas said.
Mike Allen, a Madison County probation officer with 22 years of experience, said many of the offenders he sees are repeat offenders or were convicted with aggravated circumstances. He said they do a lot of screening, but it isn’t easy to predict who will be a repeat offender. “We’ve all been trained in it, but you can’t tell from one to the next if they’re going to be the one that goes south,” he said. “Some guys, you can stick in treatment forever and it won’t do any good… There is no one thing that says, ‘This guy is going to kill his partner.’”
But both said putting all the charges together with one judge would be beneficial, putting everyone on the same page.
Winnebago’s grant allowed the hiring of more staff: a project manager, a docket coordinator, a victim service provider and a legal advocate. Gibbons said for now, they are only considering the aspects of the program that can be implemented at no cost. In the future, if they choose to hire staff for it, Gibbons said, they would pursue their own grant funding - particularly for a docket coordinator.
No one is quite sure how the program will take shape in Madison County yet. Gibbons said they are in the initial stages, and are planning the trip to Winnebago County soon to observe their process.
“We are always trying to do better and get better results,” Gibbons said. “We know we can always be improving.”
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.