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Seattle creates alternative program for domestic violence misdemeanors

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In recent years, Washington state courts have started rethinking their approach to domestic violence cases.

In Seattle, the municipal court is piloting an alternative to criminal prosecution. It provides more customized treatment for perpetrators, and incorporates the input of their victims.

Prosecutors at the Seattle City Attorney's Office say they plan to refer most offenders facing domestic violence misdemeanors to a domestic violence intervention program, which allows them to avoid a criminal record if they complete the program and do not reoffend.

One of the first participants was arrested in 2018 after neighbors called Seattle police to report an argument between a young couple in their apartment. The man, who KUOW is identifying by the initial M., agreed to speak on condition that his name not be used.

He faced a misdemeanor charge for assault against his partner, who ended up with bruises on her arms. “You’re spending the night in jail, obviously something’s gone horribly wrong here,” he said.

Instead of facing prosecution, M. was allowed to take part in the new intervention program created by the Seattle Municipal Court. He joined a group of about a dozen men who met once each week. He said he expected the sessions to be as dry as a traffic safety class, but it turned out they helped him learn to manage his anger.

“So basically, if you can recognize this series of escalations, and catch yourself, you can stop it,” he said. “And that’s where a lot of ... talk about mindfulness comes into play.”

Through the yearlong program, M. said he learned that confrontations don’t come out of nowhere — there’s nearly always a rising level of tension beforehand. He added that he learned specific ways to monitor himself and stave off those escalations.

“Eventually, the volume starts to rise,” he said. “And it’s like, 'Wait — what are we actually even arguing about? Let’s just bring it down, listen to the song for a minute, there’s no reason this needs to turn into a thing.'”

Now M. is in a new relationship and said it’s going well.

The Seattle Municipal Court created the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in 2018. That’s after a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy concluded that standard domestic violence interventions weren’t effective at stopping people from reoffending, according to Judge Adam Eisenberg.

“So after that study came out, courts across the country and particularly in our state were like, 'We don’t know what to do with domestic violence,'” Eisenberg said. He noted that assaults, stalking, and violation of protection orders can all qualify as misdemeanors. "We get some pretty serious assaults with pretty shocking injuries," he said.

Eisenberg said that while previous treatment programs were 'one size fits all,' the intervention program is more tailored to each defendant’s specific circumstances, such as being housing insecure or having an addiction. Those needs are identified through an in-depth assessment at the beginning of the program. Participants then come to court to provide updates on how things are going, and whether they find the program useful.

“The goal is to give them tools so they don’t come back to court and they don’t continue to mistreat their loved ones," he said. "Who needs another conviction if we can get them successfully through the program?”

The approach reflects a changing view of domestic violence offenders, who were once regarded as less capable of rehabilitation. Chris Anderson heads the domestic violence unit at the Seattle City Attorney’s office.

“There are many pressures and issues that lead to violence and triggers the violence,” he said, adding that this program tries to help people address those “triggers.”

His office is now planning to use this program for most people who commit domestic violence misdemeanors. If participants complete it and don’t reoffend, the charges against them will be dismissed. He said the message to defendants is, “’We want you to get better, we want you to engage in this treatment — and we’ll just let this all go at the end if you can do that for us.’”

Letting "this all go" may seem like it goes against the wishes of domestic violence survivors. But victims advocate Julie Huffman with the City Attorney’s Office said that’s not her experience.

“We hear most often from people, ‘I don’t want him in jail, I don’t want a conviction. I just want the behavior changed,’” she said.

Huffman said Seattle’s program is unique in that it has a victim advocate at the table throughout the process. The advocates are in contact with survivors and can present their concerns, as well as connect them with support services.

Next year, Huffman hopes to send out anonymized surveys to the partners of the offenders before, during, and after the intervention program to get their input on how the offenders are doing.

Tara Richards, a professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, is doing an outside evaluation of the program.

“One of the things I am really excited about is their commitment to collecting victim-partner stories,” she said. “I think it’s really important, and it’s a missing piece on most of these types of evaluations.”

She said that Seattle’s program is based on one that is widely used in the state of Colorado.

So far, the Seattle Municipal Court has found that fewer people who complete this program commit new offenses, compared to those who don’t take part. Judge Eisenberg called the numbers encouraging, but said they need more enrollment before drawing any conclusions. They have just over 100 participants and about 20 “graduates” so far.

Eisenberg said another limitation is that most domestic violence treatment providers are geared to serve English speakers and hetero-normative men. The court expects to offer a Spanish-language program soon. But Eisenberg said remaining challenges include offering programs in other languages, and finding providers who work with people in LGBTQ relationships.

Victim advocates are watching carefully to see what impact the pandemic is having on rates of domestic violence. Historically, studies have shown an uptick in domestic violence cases in the aftermath of disasters. Advocates say more research is needed, but this year in King County, requests for help to domestic violence nonprofits have increased.

According to Public Health —Seattle & King County, felony charge referrals for the most serious cases and emergency department visits related to domestic violence have been comparable to 2019, despite disruptions in the courts and health care. However, domestic violence-related deaths in King County have more than doubled compared to the previous two years.

M., the Domestic Violence Intervention Program participant, said the stress of the pandemic did affect him. About six months after his program ended, he said, "I felt like I was falling back into old habits." This was last spring, when the pandemic lockdown took effect. “I sort of recognized that I was starting to do that."

M. said he sought out podcasts, "went back and started reading about mindfulness again," and rededicated himself to what he learned in the intervention program.

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