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Someone asked for a feminist analysis of domestic violence court.
Here's ours:

Our DV Court, a Deceptive,
Dangerous Sham

Our domestic violence court has been designed as a showcase judicial ghetto for dv cases, and, like all ghettos, it's been stripped of its most essential functions and powers.

s in many other counties, our domestic violence court was established in response to intense criticism of our criminal justice system's handling of domestic violence cases. Also, as in many other counties, our domestic violence court is a sham, an elaborate dog-and-pony show designed to dupe the public and to preserve the dumping of victims, as much or worse than before.

Here are the defects of domestic violence court as set up in our county and many other counties around the country:

  • Like many domestic violence courts, ours only deals with misdemeanor cases. Defendants come into the court at arraignment and must enter a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty". At this initial point, dv court is no different than any other court. The similarity ends there. If the defendant enters a plea of "not guilty", the criminal case is immediately kicked out of dv court and sent back to a standard municipal court for adjudication. If the defendant pleads "guilty", the dv court then sets a schedule for the now convicted perpetrator to report back again and again to the dv court for monitoring and supervision of his probation.

n other words, dv court doesn't really function as a court at all. It doesn't decide guilt or innocence in domestic violence cases, doesn't weigh evidence, examine witnesses, prosecute defendants, doesn't undertake the rigorous search for truth that is the core work of a court, and it doesn't conduct trials. In dv court, except on rare occasions, the victim's voice and testimony isn't heard.

Our dv court is nothing more than an inflated probationary baby-sitter for convicted defendants. Granted the dv court has the power to throw the guy in jail if he doesn't abide by the conditions of his probation. But overall, our dv court has been designed as a judicial ghetto for dv cases, and, like all ghettos, it's been stripped of its most essential functions and powers. Precisely those functions and powers which victims most need to be wielded on her behalf.

This eviscerated dv court ghetto, like many other dv courts, has the following disastrous consequences for victims and their cases:

  1. When the defendant pleads "not guilty", and the criminal case is reassigned to a standard municipal court, the cases are handled back in muni court by a junior prosecutor and by muni court judges who are now more unfriendly to these cases than before there was a dv court. In addition to their previous virulent biases against dv cases, these judges are now also resentful at being strapped with cases they feel should be being handled in the dv court. So even worse than before, these muni court judges have a tendency to get rid of the dv cases as quickly as possible - all too frequently by outright dismissing the cases, no matter how strong the evidence, no matter how egregious the offense, no matter how long the criminal history

  2. Not surprisingly, it took defense attorneys in our county less than five minutes to figure out what dv court meant for their clients, the domestic violence defendants. Defense attorneys began immediately explaining to their clients 'how sweet it is'. Plead "not guilty", they strongly advise their clients, get your case moved back into muni court, and you've got a great chance of walking free. In fact, the gutted functioning of our dv court has assured that the most intractable, hard core dv offenders have the greatest chance of going free.

    The hard core offenders never take responsibility and never plead "guilty" no matter how strong the evidence, so they all end up in muni court. Dv court, where all the domestic violence resources are located, is left to deal mainly with the lightweights. The victim of a hard core batterer and her case are often alone in muni court because the victim counselor, and the victim sensitive prosecutor, judge, and support staff are all tied up in dv court. So you can see, our dv court is designed to dazzle the eye while the dirty work of dumping these cases goes on hidden away in muni court.

  3. Also, not surprisingly, the victims do not get the picture. Everything about the dv court is couched in the most slurpy victim-supportive language about how great dv court is for victims. And, like the public, the victim drops her guard, and is more easily made to go along with whatever officials recommend. What officials recommend, of course, is usually in the officials' best interest, not the victims'. And the officials' interest is that these cases go away as quickly as possible - back to muni court and out the door.

  4. The origin of our dv court structure is also instructive. Our dv court was modeled on our drug court - in much the same way as other dv courts around the country are modeled on a drug court. Now drug court was established as a 'soft court' because misdemeanor drug crimes here are treated under the category called 'victimless crimes'. Thus drug court offers the drug defendant the opportunity to plead "guilty", to avoid the heavy handed sentencing given drug crimes in regular court, and to be hand held by a sympathetic drug court judge through the probationary period.

o right from its origin, dv court delivers an outrageous insult to dv victims by putting their cases into a structure designed for sensitivity to defendants accused of 'victimless crimes'. (Then to top it off, the same judge who ran our drug court for years was assigned to run the dv court which he did for years.) Furthermore, dv offenders, different from drug offenders, are not intimidated by the threat of being sent to a standard criminal court. Quite the contrary, as we've seen, dv offenders and their defense attorneys are well aware that most judges do not like these 'family' cases clogging up their criminal courts to begin with. In most judges minds, as in the minds of so many criminal justice officials, the immense powers of the criminal system were never meant to be wielded on behalf of women who get a little over-disciplined for not having dinner ready on time.

And there are other problems with our dv court than just it's defanged ghetto structure:

  • Not only does the county lose a judge to his new role as a stage prop in the sham of dv court. There is also a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a probation officer assigned to dv court to hype the show. The reality, however, is that most of their time together in dv court is spent doing the work that used to be handled by just one lone probation officer. "Now, Mr. Jones, did you go to all your counseling sessions this month", the judge asks? "Did you visit your children?" "Did you refrain from beating your wife"?

    One competent, self-respecting prosecutor in our county who was recently assigned to dv court began yelping and squawking about the assignment the moment she understood it for the sham it was. And she didn't stop yelping and squawking until she got herself reassigned out of there. There was no way she was going to squander her talents for a year or two as a stage prop in our district attorney's dog-and-ponny show dv court. She was hired as a prosecutor, and she insisted on working as a prosecutor.

  • Also assigned to our dv court is one victim advocate, or dv counselor as she's called in our county. This victim counselor is the crown jewel of our dv court sham. On paper, she's employed by our local dv shelter, but her employment arrangement is under contract to the DA, the man to whom she, the shelter, and their grant money are beholden. Similar to victim advocates in many other counties, such arrangements are a profound conflict of interest for the advocates who, on the one hand, are supposed to be fighting for the rights of the victim and, on the other hand, are dependent on approval of criminal justice officials for their bread and butter. Instead of serving as advocates for the victims, they have melted down into a doctor/nurse relationship with the prosecutors, or, as in our particular case, into a trained parrot riding around on the DA's shoulder.

o if a victim is outraged that her case was rejected for filing, the victim counselor shows the case to the DA, and the DA says there's not enough evidence. The victim counselor without further ado goes back to the victim. "We're so sorry, there's not enough evidence." It doesn't matter that there are photos, witnesses, and a perpetrator confession on video. "Let me help you with a safety plan," says the advocate. "Have you thought about moving out of town?" Dv court was created to be a smooth running sham and the hiring of the counselor was done accordingly. And woe to the victim who thinks she's talking to an advocate who will fight for her rights to justice and protection.

And one more thing:

Given the dedication of our dv court to its service as an inflated probationary baby-sitter, you would think they would at least perform this function well. You would expect that when perpetrators skip their counseling or renew their attacks on the victim, that dv court would swiftly and firmly flex the one muscle it has, and throw the convicted offender in jail. Wrong! These reoffenders are given break after break after break. At the very best, from time to time there may be a violation of probation hearing, and even then the most likely outcome is to extend the perpetrator's probation by another couple of months. Again, and again, and again. Violation, after violation, after violation.

o here's the feminist analysis. The patriarchal criminal justice system wields immense powers. And it has no intention of wielding these powers on behalf of women, especially when it comes to liberating women from the violence which is essential to maintaining patriarchal systems. In fact, the criminal justice system lags far behind the rest of society in terms of its willingness to change. Despite the enactment of ample legislation for responding to gender based violence, despite increasing demands from women that this violence be stopped, the criminal justice system remains determined to withhold their powers for enforcing these changes. Systematic dumping of rape and domestic violence cases, systematic denial of justice and protection, and systematic collaboration with violence against women, continues as before. The main thing that changes in the criminal justice system is that their sophistication for chumping the public becomes more and more elaborate. And in our town dv court is Exhibit A.

To be sure there have been improvements in individual departments and in units here and there. But for every improvement, there are as many or more powerful reactionary forces in the criminal justice system that have become activated and organized to make sure things stay as they were.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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