Hitting Them Where They Live

Colorado has become a national laboratory for domestic-violence programs. sometimes it's a strange science. A Westword special report

Patricia Ann Burns had finally taken all she was going to from her husband, Clarence. One day in August 1982, the 38-year-old elementary-school teacher, who'd been beaten twice by Clarence in recent months, told her husband that she was through with the hitting and yelling and through with the marriage.

Clarence, a 47-year-old butcher by trade, responded by stalking Patricia Ann, confronting her, and then shooting her five times in the face.

She left him. He killed her.
Burns was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. It was a crime of passion, he claimed. Then he awaited his sentence, which in those days typically ranged from eight to twelve years. But as horrible as the crime was, what happened next in the Burns case still reverberates today.

On June 22, 1983, Denver District Court Judge Alvin Lichtenstein sentenced Burns to serve just two years in a work-release program--he'd have to report to the Denver County Jail only at night--so that he could support his son. After all, said the judge, Patricia Burns had "deceived" her husband into thinking their marriage was on the mend when in fact she intended to end it.

"His mental and emotional condition, combined with the sudden heat of passion caused by a series of highly provoking acts on the part of the victim, affected the defendant sufficiently so that it excited an irresistible passion," said the judge in explaining the light sentence.

The story went national, provoking outrage from women's groups who called for Lichtenstein's head. Protest rallies were staged in downtown Denver, with current U.S. Senate candidate and then Colorado First Lady Dottie Lamm declaring to the audience that the judge's sentence "fosters the idea that violence is okay and women are property in our state. And I don't like it."

The uproar ultimately forced Lichtenstein out of the criminal courts, and Burns's sentence was eventually lengthened to ten years. But more important, the case provided the critical spark for Colorado to become a national leader in laws and programs dealing with domestic violence.

Despite two decades of activism and change, domestic violence has maintained a malignant consistency in this country. Nationally in 1997, more than two million women were battered by their male partners. In Colorado in 1996, the most recent year for which numbers are available, there were more than 16,000 domestic-violence incidents, 7,000 in Denver alone, including 17 murders, 297 kidnappings, 875 aggravated assaults, 7,219 simple assaults and 200 rapes.

Authorities report a growing number of men being beaten by women. Cases involving same-sex couples are on the rise. And in a development that doesn't bode well for the future, one metro-area treatment center is dedicated solely to handling juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence: teenagers already well on their way into what advocates call the "cycle of violence."

Fifteen years after the Burns case, Colorado remains at the forefront when it comes to addressing domestic violence. Millions in federal grants flow into the state, helping fund a series of programs that supporters describe as "homicide prevention." From arrest to trial to sentencing, all the way through the criminal justice system, domestic violence is treated like no other crime in Colorado.

Domestic violence in itself is not technically a crime under state law. But when piggybacked onto "base" crimes such as assault or harassment, the "Dom Vio" tag triggers a series of consequences for offenders:

* Mandatory arrest and "no-drop" prosecution laws force a hard-line policy on police and prosecutors. In many jurisdictions, the accused are not allowed to make bond until they spend at least one night in jail, a practice that even advocates say may raise constitutional issues about pretrial punishment.

* Case files are sped through the system by special "Fast Track" units within many district attorney's offices. Victim advocates work full-time counseling victims and encouraging them to testify. In some jurisdictions, victims even receive subpoenas forcing them to show up in court.

* Domestic-violence offenders aren't allowed to plead to any criminal offense that doesn't include the "Dom Vio" tag--and a requirement that they attend 36 weeks of counseling to "unlearn" their abusive behavior. Official state treatment standards based on feminist theory call for lessons on the "sociocultural basis for violence" and for the teaching of "time-outs" as a method for counteracting violent rages. Those same standards declare that "the most prevalent cause of domestic violence is the ideology of patriarchy."

Increasingly, however, the question is being raised: Is Colorado's odd mixture of get-tough measures on the front end and social engineering on the back end really working?

Certainly, the pendulum that began to swing in the late 1970s away from allowing a husband to legally rape his wife has swung far in the opposite direction. But even as the aggressive handling of "Dom Vio" cases has created a virtual cottage industry of advocates and treatment providers, there is scant evidence to suggest that the new system is producing measurable results, especially with the most dangerous offenders. The recidivism rate remains high, and those who reoffend often do so with minimal consequences.

Colorado was the first state to mandate "treatment" for domestic-violence offenders; today only California has more therapists per offender. Some batterers now get higher-level monitoring and treatment than hardcore sex offenders. Yet most Colorado jurisdictions report a rise in domestic-violence cases. In Jefferson County, home to a national pilot program, arrests were up 12 percent last year. In Denver, whose police force is recognized as one of the state's most progressive in its handling of domestic-violence cases, felony filings are up. And though municipal cases have flattened out in Denver, authorities believe that could be due to the city's courts having reached a saturation point, as a core group of criminals continues to reoffend.

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