A Quick Ride on a Fast Track

Even indoors, the young blond woman keeps her dark glasses on--the better to disguise, along with pancake makeup, the bruises on the right side of her face where her common-law husband hit her the night before. Or maybe it's to hide the humiliation of being in a room inside the Jefferson County courthouse with five other women whose husbands or boyfriends have also been arrested on domestic-violence charges this April weekend.

They're about to experience the Jefferson County Fast Track Domestic Violence program, a national pilot project in which both misdemeanor offenders and their victims get a crash course in the criminal-justice system.

The statewide mandatory-arrest laws passed in 1994 accomplished the front-end results their advocates hoped for. Arrest rates jumped, and more alleged offenders were funneled into the system than ever before. Presumably, at least some victims were saved from situations that could have escalated.

However, the huge new influx of misdemeanor domestic-violence cases at the county level caused a problem: Cases often moved slowly through the system, and it could take months for a case to go from arrest to disposition. Meanwhile, the offender, who'd usually gone back home, had all that time to threaten, coerce or beg the victim into not cooperating with his prosecution.

The solution was to streamline the system. Under so-called Fast Track programs, arresting officers are required to complete their incident reports and get them to victim advocates before they leave work the day of the arrest. The advocates then attempt to establish whether the suspect has a prior criminal history. Cases are clearly identified as domestic-violence-related--sometimes by the color of the file folder in which they are placed, other times with a special "Dom Vio" stamp.

At today's meeting in Jefferson County, the young blond, Caroline (not her real name), is joined by her mother, who knows all about domestic violence, having been abused by two previous husbands. "He's hurt her before, but she would always say stuff like, 'I fell and hurt myself' or 'He didn't mean to,'" the mother says. "This time when she called and said, 'Mom, I need you, come quick,' I took a police officer with me."

It didn't take much for the officer to establish probable cause that a crime had been committed. He photographed the injuries on Caroline's face and the marks where her husband had grabbed her roughly by the arm.

Using a form common to metro-area police agencies that was designed specifically for domestic-violence cases, the officer noted such things as Caroline's and her husband's emotional states, the length and type of the couple's relationship, and any spontaneous statements given by either party. He marked off that a child--the couple's four-year-old daughter--was present during the incident. And he checked for other evidence--overturned furniture, holes kicked in doors--that might be helpful at trial, especially if the victim refused to cooperate.

Caroline's husband was arrested for third-degree assault and taken to the Jefferson County jail, where he had to spend the night. A temporary restraining order was automatically issued with the arrest, prohibiting him from having any contact with Caroline, including by telephone or through a third person.

A victim advocate from the police department visited Caroline at home that night to explain the process and offer support. The same advocate also issued Caroline a subpoena to appear at the Victim/Witness Assistance Center in the courthouse the next day.

Before he got off work that night, the arresting officer completed the form and faxed a copy to the Victim/Witness Assistance Center. Program coordinator Teresa Legault and her assistants then began the process of trying to establish if the alleged offender had a criminal history, including prior domestic-violence charges.

At 10 a.m., the husband and seven other men arrested on misdemeanor domestic-violence charges that weekend were taken to a room in the jail where a judge advised them of their rights and set their bonds via a television connected to his courtroom. Caroline's husband and one other man were bonded out by their families; they and the other six, who would have to wait in jail, were to appear again before a judge for arraignment at three that afternoon in the courthouse. At that time, they would have a choice between pleading guilty, or pleading not guilty and going to trial.

At 1 p.m., six of the victims appear at the victim's-assistance office as ordered. One other calls to say she's afraid of her boyfriend's family, who she thinks will be in the courtroom, and doesn't want to come in. She is questioned over the telephone. The eighth never shows up or calls.

The women are herded into a meeting room and seated around a table where a victim advocate gives an "orientation" speech. Three of the women, including Caroline, have small children with them. Some of the women look bewildered, as if caught in a bad dream. Several others have been here--or in a similar room in another jurisdiction--before.

Fast Track programs for domestic violence have existed at the municipal level since the 1980s in cities such as Aurora and Westminster. Though it doesn't use the Fast Track appellation, Denver has used a similar approach for city-ordinance violations for years.

Municipal courts in these cities handle what are known as "ordinance violations"--essentially, lesser crimes such as disturbing the peace or harassment that occur within city limits and don't quite rise to the level of severity of misdemeanor offenses, which are state charges. In domestic-violence cases, the difference between a misdemeanor and an ordinance violation can be blurry. For instance, assault can be charged as either, though typically, misdemeanor charges are filed in the cases that are more drastic--a slap as opposed to a shove.

In Denver, whose county court is now in the process of formulating its own officially designated Fast Track program with federal grant money, victims of ordinance violations and misdemeanors aren't subpoenaed but get telephone calls from advocates the morning after the incident. Denver County advocates go through one to two felony or misdemeanor cases per day, while the city program advocates see an average of fifteen to sixteen cases. And they go through them quickly.

The advocates must have their completed background checks and victim interviews to the city attorney by 10:30 in the morning. The city attorney goes through the cases, deciding what, if any, plea bargains will be offered. The case files are picked up by public defenders, who represent the great majority of the defendants, by 11:30 a.m. The public defenders go to the jail to explain the options to the defendants, who must reach a decision on how to plead by 1:30 p.m., when their cases go before a judge.

One goal of the hurry-up approach is to keep victims safe. But protection of the victim isn't the only reason cited to justify the practice.

The majority of domestic-violence offenders go through a period of remorse following an attack that advocates call "hearts and flowers." It's a time when they are most receptive to acknowledging that they have a problem and that they might benefit from court-ordered counseling. Some advocates point to this guilty angst as the reason why fast-track programs boast a high percentage of suspects who plead guilty at arraignment. In Denver's municipal program, for example, approximately one-third of the suspects plead guilty; in Jefferson County, it's more than two-thirds.

"A lot of these guys are basically good people who don't like what they do," says Legault. "They just have a problem controlling their anger. But give them time to think about it and they'll start blaming the victim again, and the cycle starts all over."

Adds Linda Ferry, who ran Denver's ordinance-level program from 1991 until this year and is now developing the county's Fast Track program for misdemeanors, "The longer a case meanders through the system, the greater the chance for another episode of violence."

Another reason for moving quickly is that the longer a victim has to think about the ramifications of a court case, the more likely she is to recant or refuse to cooperate. If victims go for months after an assault with no further incidents--perhaps because the perpetrator is lying low after an arrest--they tend to believe that intervention by the courts isn't necessary.

Interestingly, there is no indication that fast-track programs are successful at reducing the large number of victims who eventually recant. According to Legault, that figure still hovers somewhere around 75 percent. But advocates believe that their efforts have at least reduced the number of victims who recant within the first 24 hours, in part by occupying them with subpoenas and visits by victim advocates. That creates a window of opportunity for prosecutors and may explain the large numbers of offenders in Jeffco who choose to plead guilty right away.

Legault says that although there are "overzealous" people who work as victim advocates, the proper role of an advocate isn't to cajole victims into helping authorities. "There are a lot of good reasons victims don't want to cooperate," she says. "Often it's financial. They have kids, no job and no way to support themselves. And a lot of the time, they still love the guy. Many victims continue to want the relationship; they just don't want the violence."

One of the women brought down to the courthouse with Caroline knows the routine. She's been here before, both as a victim and as a perpetrator. When the opportunity arrives to ask questions, she launches into a tirade about the "bullshit" domestic-violence counseling classes she's still required to attend. "We get someone new in class every week and have to start all over again," she complains. "The only thing it's good for is it gives me a night out, away from my boyfriend and our kids."

The advocate, a volunteer, is clearly irritated by the woman's attitude. She suggests that the woman talk to her probation officer about changing counselors and then moves on. She explains that she is there to inform the women of what to expect from the system and to detail the resources available to them.

The restraining orders issued to their husbands and boyfriends are temporary, she tells them. The women can ask the judge later that afternoon to lift the order--"which the prosecutor may or may not go along with." Or in two weeks, the women can appear before a judge to ask that the restraining order be made permanent.

The advocate cautions that the temporary restraining orders prohibit perpetrators from going near the women and their residences, or from making contact with witnesses. However, it doesn't necessarily cover children or other relatives if those individuals didn't witness the incident. If victims want to expand the protective umbrella, the advocate says, they'll have to pursue a civil restraining order. Volunteers from Women in Crisis, the first official battered-women's shelter in Colorado, will be in the courthouse that afternoon to conduct a restraining order clinic.

"She's staying with me," the mother says, nodding toward her daughter. "Can I get one for me and my home? I'm afraid of what he might do." The advocate suggests that the mother attend the clinic.

In the meantime, the advocate cautions the women that the "no contact" order is in place. They are not to try to talk to their boyfriends and husbands if they see them that afternoon in the hallways or the courtroom.

With that out of the way, the advocate tells the women that one of the goals of the Fast Track program is "to address the criminal act quickly and appropriately--to stop the behavior." She explains that it is "not the burden of the victim to decide on filing, dropping or prosecuting a case." Once police are called, the victim no longer has a choice in the matter.

Before changes were made to speed up the system, these cases might have been hanging over the women's heads for six to twelve months, the advocate tells them. Now most of the cases will be resolved in a few weeks, maybe that very afternoon, if their husbands and boyfriends cooperate by pleading guilty.

The victims are given a form to fill out, noting if they want the accused to pay restitution for the destruction of any property not jointly held. There's also a victim's compensation fund, which comes out of court fines, to reimburse them for counseling expenses or other services related to the crime.

After the orientation meeting, the victims are sent back to a waiting room. There they are interviewed individually by the other advocates who work part-time for Legault. The advocates steer clear of the facts of the cases, explaining that they will leave those to the prosecutor. Rather, they ask questions to get a feel for the women's relationships with their alleged abusers and how the women feel about what is happening. They're asked if there are any guns in the house and if their husband or boyfriend has ever threatened them with those weapons.

Several of the women obviously have a hard time believing the advocates are on their side. Several worry aloud that further involvement by the system will just make their men even more angry. They beg to have the charges dropped. It was an accident. It was a one-time mistake. It's all a loud misunderstanding caused by the nosy neighbor who called the cops.

The advocates offer tissues for the tears and explain over and over that it isn't up to the victims whether to drop the charges. "But this gives you a chance to let the prosecutor know how you feel," one advocate tells a woman who can't believe her husband went to jail for what was essentially a shouting match. "They will take that into consideration. But I have to tell you, there's not much chance the charges will be dropped."

Other women ask questions about how long their husbands or boyfriends will have to stay away from home. Their men work out of the house, they say, and this is costing the whole family income. Some point out that the stress that prompted the violence was economic and that any potential fines and court-ordered counseling will just add to their problems.

Many of the women, however, seem grateful that someone has intervened in what for most was a continuing pattern of abuse. "She's finally taken all she's going to take," says Caroline's mother. "She's going to go through with it this time, and I'm going to be here with her. I know what it's like to live with that and be too afraid to leave, especially when you have children."

The women meet next with Deputy District Attorney Sarah Wise. She, too, notes that a high percentage of victims in Jefferson County, most of them women, want the state to drop the charges. "Maybe 70 to 80 percent," says Wise. "But society has decided that this is a crime, not a private matter, and it's our job to prosecute crimes."

Often, Wise says, the victims and offenders become angrier with the system than they ever were with each other. And that's okay with her. "I'm the one who won't drop the charges," notes Wise. "I'm the one who may go into court and ask that the 'no contact' order remain in place. Then their boyfriend or husband can be mad at me. It makes them feel that I'm the bad guy, not their wives or girlfriends."

Although many try, only one of the women manages to convince Wise to drop the charges against her husband, who was arrested after a heated shouting match. She'll rarely agree to such requests, Wise says, and there's a reason. She wants victims to come to understand what advocates and prosecutors already know: that domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that often escalates.

"These one-on-one meetings give us a chance to point out things, like how violence in the home impacts children," Wise says. "Or that even if they get out of the relationship, what about the next woman? Wrapped up as they are in their own cases, they often don't think of the bigger picture."

In Jefferson County, prosecutors are regularly rotated into different assignments. Wise says she likes the time she spends with the Fast Track program. "Compared to other cases, which may drag on for months, you get the feeling that you've made a real and immediate difference in someone's life," she says. "A good difference--maybe even saved someone from getting hurt again."

The individual meetings with the prosecutor may include the gathering of additional evidence. For instance, Wise asks for better photographs of the marks on Caroline's face. When that's done, the advocates lead the women down the hallway to the courtroom.

Six of the accused men sit in the jury box. All wear Jeffco's bright-orange jail jumpsuits. The two who bonded out that morning, including Caroline's husband, sit in the back of the courtroom in civilian clothes waiting to be called. Deputies quickly jump down the throat of any of the men who so much as raise an eyebrow or attempt to mouth words to their wives and girlfriends.

The women find seats in the spectator pews. Only the woman who had convinced Wise to drop the charges chooses to sit next to an advocate.

The judge moves quickly through the cases. Defendants are reminded to abide by the terms of the no-contact order or face the wrath of the court. A young Hispanic woman with several children in tow asks that the restraining order be lifted so that her boyfriend, who listens to the events through an interpreter, can come back home. "He didn't pull my hair like the neighbor said," she tells the judge.

Wise objects, noting that the defendant has prior domestic-violence offenses against his girlfriend, including a felony assault charge. The judge leaves the restraining order in place.

A man accused of assaulting his wife while on a work-release program from jail pleads guilty. But he asks that he be allowed to move to Arizona so that he can attend an alcohol-abuse program there. "We have a six-year-old son. I'd rather not have us fighting all the time," the man says. "I'd rather be a long-distance father than have this keep causing us all this grief."

Wise doesn't object, noting that the man can attend 36 weeks of court-ordered counseling in that state as well as in Colorado. However, the man will have to ask Colorado probation authorities to work out such an agreement with their Arizona counterparts.

Half of the men--one of them Caroline's husband--plead guilty. Two are sentenced immediately to probation and court-ordered counseling. The judge asks that a pre-sentence report be completed for the other two, who have previous domestic-violence offenses, before he sentences them. Trials are set for six to eight weeks later for the men who plead not guilty.

This is essentially the end of Fast Track's involvement with most of these victims and offenders. However, Legault's office will continue to "hold the hands" of victims whose abusers are proceeding to trial. For those whose abusers pleaded guilty, other parts of the system will take over. Victim advocates in the probation department will check with victims to make sure the men who assaulted them are behaving themselves and attending classes.

And the Fast Track team will start all over again the next morning with a new group.

Outside the courtroom, Caroline's mother waits for her daughter, holding her granddaughter. "I hope this breaks the cycle," she says, stroking the child's face. "It's been hard for my daughter. He isolated her from other people. She didn't have a way to earn money to support herself. He made her feel like she couldn't do anything and was unattractive--like no one else would want her.

"Now other young men are paying attention to her, telling her she's pretty. I just hope that with the Lord's help, she finds a good one the next time."

Jefferson County's Fast Track program was the first county-level project of its kind in Colorado, funded as part of a $645,000 federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant given to the county for its "comprehensive community response" to domestic violence.

VAWA money has since been used to establish county-level fast-track programs in Arapahoe and Adams counties. Most recently, Denver County got into the act, hiring Linda Ferry to develop a model closely resembling Jeffco's.

But for all the efforts of fast-track advocates, there is no conclusive proof that the programs are reducing the incidence of domestic violence. In most jurisdictions, overall numbers continue to climb. Recidivism rates remain high, around 50 percent. And, Legault concedes, "the vast majority" of victims still choose to remain in a relationship with their abuser.

In Denver, municipal-level ordinance violations have actually gone down recently, from 6,556 in 1996 to 5,962 in 1997. However, the more serious felony and misdemeanor cases have risen, Ferry says--"and that's not encouraging."

In Jefferson County, Fast Track cases rose from 386 in 1996 to 572 in 1997. Legault attributes some of the increase to better reporting and more aggressive attempts to identify domestic violence as a factor in other cases. But, she adds, "probably there are simply more [cases]. We live in a violent world."

Advocates prefer to see the glass as half-full. If 50 percent of suspects reoffend, they say, that means that the other 50 percent may have gotten the message. "There's no telling how much worse the problem might have been if these programs did not exist," Legault says. She cites a 1997 survey of victims who passed through the Jeffco program. It showed that the program "has been extremely successful in providing necessary information on the court system and community resources." The victims also gave those whom they came into contact with--advocates, prosecutors, police and judges--high marks.

"At first I was of the opinion that our case was too minor to warrant my wife to go to jail or even appear in court," one male victim wrote. "Upon discussing our case with a court advocate and the DA, I can now see that today was not wasted and that both my wife and I need help...Our responding officers were very professional and helped defuse the situation. I was impressed with the degree of thoroughness the victim advocates apply."

Another person wrote, "Being a victim is sometimes a very guilty experience, like you're betraying your spouse. The people in this program were very supportive towards me.

"Everyone I dealt with was open and caring. I was scared and intimidated by what had happened and the possible trial. Those who helped explained everything and put me at ease."

The Jeffco survey was far from complete, however. Only 31 percent of 152 surveys were returned by the victims. And a small number that were returned were far from complimentary. One victim wrote, "To say the least, I'm very disappointed with the experience I had with the deputy district attorney. I came into the office expecting some help and to be treated fairly...The DA did not take the time to understand or listen."

Legault and other advocates say they often must get their job satisfaction indirectly. Victims write, or sometimes even approach them on the street, to thank them for rescuing them from the cycle of domestic violence.

"If our goal is intervention and getting information out to victims, then we're incredibly successful," says Legault. "If it's to reduce the numbers, we may have to wait until the next generation to see if any of this paid off.


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