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.

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Steve Jackson