The criminal justice system is designed with the dual intent of holding those who break the law responsible for their actions and ensuring the safety of the public. Current criminal penalties for men who batter their partners, however, fall far short of what is needed to reach this ideal.
Let’s take a common scenario: the police are called to a domestic violence dispute. They find a woman lying on the floor of her own home, bleeding, crying, possibly surrounded by her frightened children. She states that her boyfriend, husband, former lover has beaten her up. The offender is found, arrested, and booked into the county jail. After eight to twelve hours he is taken before a judge who releases him on his own recognizance with a 72 hour no-contact order and referral to either a 13 week or 26 week Batterer Intervention program. The offender returns home, the only difference being that he is now even more pissed off at his partner than before, because now he has to attend a two hour group once a week. He may go at first; he is equally as likely to reschedule his initial assessment two or three times, miss a few weeks here and there, and continue to threaten his partner. All of these are probation violations, but he never spends another night in jail until the next time he beats his partner up. Then the cycle starts all over again.
It will not surprise any of my readers to know that this is hardly effective treatment. We need more accountability for men who batter their partners; one night in jail does little except give the victim time to clean herself up before the next beating. Men need to have a mandatory sentence of at least two weeks for a first offense of domestic violence resulting in physical injury. Men who fail to attend their programs as required, fail to complete their assessments, or in other ways do not abide by their program’s rules and regulations need to be sent to jail and then returned the program. If this seems like an obvious solution, well, it is. The only problem is that it doesn’t happen.
Programs do not have the right to send an offender to jail; that right belongs to the probation officer who is more concerned about the cost of housing an inmate for two weeks than whether he missed two classes. The most serious threat a program can issue is to discharge an offender; in those cases the offender simply goes to another program and another, until he finds one that will pass him for nothing more than showing up. And yes, offenders retain the right to choose their own program.
But these are rare cases: programs are paid per day, per offender, so discharge is the least desirable option. No, far better to kept the erring offender and forget about teaching accountability, or positive communication skills, or empathy.
The most difficult bit to swallow in all this is the fact that yes, batterers can change. Abusive behavior to a batterer is like the urge to drink for an alcoholic: there will always be a danger of slipping back into the ugly habit, but batterers can and do learn different ways of interacting with their partners. Abusive behavior is learned, often from abusive parents, or from learning that if they are abusive they get what they want from people and what is learned can be unlearned. But it can only be so if those men show up to class and do their work; if they fail to do so and are not punished, they simply continue to do as they please. So we need to say forget the cost of housing an inmate; give them immediate consequences for beating their partners and they will learn not to.
Brian E. is a domestic violence specialist and expert on correctional behavior within the criminal justice system. He has worked extensively with batterers and survivors of domestic violence.
Photo Credit: Antigua Observer