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Fighting Back

Some of the state's cutting-edge science makes sense. Some of it doesn't

So what's the solution? It's not to put people in jail without bond for kicking the family pet and then order them to watch The Prince of Tides. Instead, the state should drop the one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. "Currently all domestic violence offenders in Colorado receive the same treatment, regardless of evaluation recommendations, risk levels or prior domestic violence offenses," notes the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence in a recent report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. That's got to change--and the state needs to implement more aggressive oversight of the byzantine treatment network, in part to ensure that offenders actually go to class.

Equally important is rethinking the core philosophy that drives Colorado's treatment efforts. The state now has 168 licensed treatment providers, with names ranging from Women Seeking Empowerment to Violence Is Not Acceptable. But as the National Institute of Justice notes in a report published this past February, there is no evidence to suggest that one approach to "batterer intervention" works best--or, for that matter, that any of them really work at all.

As the NIJ study points out, most professionals in the field now acknowledge that batterer treatment programs function primarily as a kind of "super-probation." In other words, whether or not they have any practical effect, they at least allow somebody to monitor an offender's activities--and, since most women continue to remain in relationships with their batterers, to safeguard the victim.

But Colorado needs to make up its mind: Is it serious about "treating" batterers, or is it just going through the motions?

All the state's code words say Colorado has a therapeutic model. But in practice, it's really an extension of social control and punishment. The state must either take the idea of treatment seriously and begin enforcing attendance and weeding out the more dubious therapies or, if the real goal is to monitor an offender's actions and whereabouts, it should establish some form of incarceration option, perhaps a halfway-house system, for the worst offenders. Instead of dissipating limited resources in attempts to extend the net as widely as possible, more attention and manpower should be devoted to identifying and punishing truly dangerous, chronic batterers.

It is outrageous that, at present, no provisions exist to give sentence enhancements or alternative sentencing to repeat or high-risk offenders. There must be a jail option for these individuals, and the state must end the practice of putting first-time offenders into 36-week classes with hardened ex-cons who may actually encourage their abusive behavior. "Feather ceremonies" are fine, but treatment programs can create a false sense of security. Keeping closer tabs on these hardcore criminals, perhaps with special probation officers who've been given reduced caseloads, and establishing consequences for those who fail to complete the programs, are essential. Rather than pointing fingers at each other, probation officers and treatment providers need to work together to get probation revocations for resistant offenders. And judges need to listen.

The legislature had a chance to address some of these issues this session, but lawmakers dropped the ball. During the next legislative session, however, lawmakers can improve the consistency of treatment by assigning a single state agency to oversee the certification of treatment providers. Using 22 local oversight boards just hasn't worked; some of the boards don't even meet, and at least five report receiving threats of lawsuits from providers. Coordinating oversight within one agency--most likely the Department of Regulatory Agencies--would help impose some order on what can now be a chaotic regimen. Yes, it would create a bureaucracy. But getting rid of 22 local boards is getting rid of 22 bureaucracies.

There are promising signs that Colorado remains at the forefront on domestic violence. The NIJ study, for example, describes Denver's AMEND program as a "pioneer that continues to modify its models in keeping with the most recent trends in batterer intervention." Perhaps more than any other state, Colorado has the money, the experience, and the institutional memory to enact meaningful change.

So celebrate Colorado's status as a leader in domestic-violence research. But know that a system that applies a set of handcuffs on the front end and a slap on the wrist on the back end simply won't work. Patricia Ann Burns deserves better. So do all the others.

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