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

Any attempt to address a problem as onerous as domestic violence is doomed to suffer setbacks. Despite publicity campaigns and counseling from victim advocates, for instance, large numbers of women continue to go back to the men who beat them--in some cases, precisely because the men have gone through treatment.

But the state's well-intended new policies have also produced unintended consequences of their own:

* Cops complain that the one-size-fits-all system forces them to treat all suspects alike, putting a drag on time and resources: "Whether it's some guy calling his wife a bitch over the telephone or some guy beating her up, we have to handle it the same."

* As the state has cast an ever-wider net in search of offenders, an increasing number of questionable cases are shoehorned into the system. Sometimes victims themselves get arrested. Sometimes men spend a night in jail for shouting at their wife--or for kicking the family dog.

* Rigid guidelines force everyone from serial batterers to first-time offenders into 36-week treatment programs, which vary greatly in approach and have been plagued by questions about effectiveness, high dropout rates, even fears that minor violators are being "desensitized" by weekly exposure to hardened offenders. Too often, chronic batterers have been allowed to bounce from program to program while avoiding any significant punishment for failing to complete the court-ordered treatment.

* Though Colorado was the first state to mandate treatment for offenders, it's the only state that doesn't have an umbrella agency overseeing the quality of that treatment. The quality of classes varies wildly; some involve little more than watching touchy-feely movies such as The Prince of Tides. In some cases, local boards set up to monitor treatment providers have simply gone out of business; others continue to be hampered by the state's failure to fund their oversight efforts. That failure was compounded earlier this year when a recalcitrant state legislature, ignoring years of efforts by advocates to overhaul the system, allowed a reform bill to die in committee.

While the "she made me do it" defense has been heard in local courtrooms as recently as 1996, during the death-penalty trial of wife- and cop-killer Albert Petrosky, no one is suggesting that the state go back to thinking as Judge Lichtenstein did in 1983. But ten years after Governor Roy Romer signed into law one of the nation's most aggressive approaches to domestic violence, the time has come to re-examine the system.

In this special report, Westword tracks Colorado's domestic-violence system from arrest to prosecution to sentencing and punishment.

This week, editor Patricia Calhoun traces the evolution of Denver as a laboratory for cutting-edge approaches to the problem. Staff writer Steve Jackson examines the practical effects that laws drafted largely by feminists and social workers have had on the criminal-justice system--well-meaning, even effective, efforts that still sometimes backfire for both victims and the accused. Jackson also tells the stories of two people whose lives have been touched by domestic violence--one a young woman being ruthlessly stalked in Denver, the other one of the state's most powerful law enforcement officials.

Next week, executive managing editor Christine Brennan, herself a victim of domestic violence, offers a candid first-person account of her trip through the justice system--a strange odyssey that, more than two years after an attack by her ex-husband, is still far from over. And staff writer Alan Prendergast investigates the state's widening net of treatment programs for offenders, talking to treatment providers, victims and convicted batterers to evaluate whether violent offenders truly can--or will--"unlearn" abusive behavior.

Finally, we suggest a set of possible reforms. Colorado has led the way in the treatment of domestic violence, but even advocates say that today--just as in 1983--it's time for a change.

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