If you are a judicial officer reading this, chances are you’ve issued an order or two in your career. You did so with the belief that the parties involved would obey those court orders, right? One way to find out if someone is complying with an order is to wait for the filing of notices of violations, such as contempt proceedings or probation violations. And, if there are no filings, that means the party is complying with the conditions of probation or the civil protection order…right? We all know the answer is “No.”
But, is there a way to ensure that court orders in domestic violence cases are taken seriously?
Over the past decade, judicial oversight has emerged as a best practice in domestic violence cases. Studies have demonstrated that judicial oversight—also known as judicial review hearings—can make a real difference in reducing recidivism in domestic violence cases. In these types of cases, a reduction in recidivism is important. Fewer people are injured and fewer lives are lost. Across the nation, state courts are adopting judicial standards that include oversight in cases of criminal domestic violence and civil protection orders.
On the civil side, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ 2010 guidebook, Civil Protection Orders: A Guide for Improving Practice recommends that judges “schedule regular compliance review hearings at the time of issuance of the final protection order.” Judges should indicate who will need to attend those hearings. The respondent must attend as well as personnel from a supervised visitation center or a batterers’ intervention program, if such conditions were ordered as part of the protection order.
In order to save valuable court time and resources, the guidebook suggests using senior judges to handle the compliance review hearing calendar. Judges should also prepare a pre-set compliance review form to check off with a high degree of specificity what will be reviewed at the compliance hearing. The Council advises judges to conduct review hearings on all issues in the protection order, including, for example, no contact, visitation, restitution, and firearms surrender. Judges should advise petitioners of the hearing dates, and emphasize that their presence is not required at the hearings. Judges should avoid assigning the role of accuser to the petitioner. Finally, it is important to convey the message that compliance hearings are not a means to modify or vacate orders for protection.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office has published Enhancing Enforcement of Orders of Protection in New Mexico: A Best Practices Guide for Law Enforcement, Prosecution and Courts (2009). Like the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ book, this guidebook also urges judges to conduct regular compliance review hearings, and to schedule them when issuing the protection order to communicate that the court will enforce its compliance orders. The New Mexico guidelines also recommend that judicial officers undergo training in enforcement of the orders. Judges should never return a firearm to a respondent unless a hearing occurs upon the order’s expiration to ensure that the respondent has been in compliance with the order and can lawfully possess a firearm.
Civil Protection Orders: A Guide for Improving Practice
Enhancing Enforcement of Orders of Protection in New Mexico: A Best Practices Guide for Law Enforcement, Prosecution and Courts (2009)
Many jurisdictions also recognize compliance hearings as a best practice in criminal domestic violence cases. The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts publication, North Carolina Domestic Violence Best Practices Guide for District Court Judges (July, 2010; updated June 2012), recommends that judges “institute compliance hearings to monitor probationers and enhance victim safety.” The guidebook encourages judges not to wait for violations of probation or for the filing of new charges. Judges should monitor domestic violence offenders early and often, sanction and reward offenders based on their level of compliance, and consistently apply sanctions and rewards.
Why should judges employ these best practices in domestic violence cases? Many research projects have found that offenders will abuse their victims again in more than 50% of cases. One study found almost half of the defendants who reoffended did so within three months of their intake into batterers’ intervention programs, and two-thirds reoffended within six months. Further, offenders who do not experience consequences for noncompliance with court orders will increase their abuse. Early noncompliance is a warning sign that offenders will not complete court-ordered counseling at all (North Carolina Domestic Violence Best Practices Guide, supra, at 90; Andrew R. Klein, Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges, National Institute of Justice, NCJ 225722, June, 2009, at 19, 21, 72, and 71).
A judge conveys a powerful message to everyone in the courtroom about the seriousness of the compliance order when he or she praises a defendant for adhering to the conditions of probation, or criticizes an offender in a firm yet respectful manner for failing to attend court-ordered counseling (Vera Institute, Judicial Review Hearings: Keeping Courts on the Case, 2006, at 5). This was just one of the lessons from the Judicial Oversight Demonstration (JOD) Initiative, conducted from 1999 to 2004 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dorchester, Massachusetts; and, Washtenaw County, Michigan.
The JOD documented significant reductions in reoffending—but only when judges held defendants accountable for their noncompliance with court orders. In Milwaukee especially, where fewer than 16% of defendants completed their court-ordered counseling programs prior to the JOD, a system of graduated rewards and graduated sanctions, compliance hearings, and other measures lowered offenders’ re-arrest rates to half of those for their counterparts in non-JOD courts (Judicial Review Hearings, supra, at 2; Harrell et al., The Evaluation of Milwaukee’s Judicial Oversight Demonstration, Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, 2006, at 4).
So, the next time you issue a protection order, a no-contact order, or conditions of bail or probation, consider scheduling a compliance hearing or two, and see what happens!