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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.

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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