In the past eight years, more than 25,000 domestic violence offenders have gone through Pima County Justice Court Judge Jack Peyton’s courtroom.
First-time offenses and felony cases are tried in other divisions, but Peyton hears the rest — the majority of Pima County’s domestic violence cases. It’s been that way since he established the specialty court in 2007.
“Our domestic violence court has become a best-practice model for the state,” he said. “The collaboration between law enforcement, treatment providers, Adult Probation Services and the courts is really one-of-a-kind.”
On any given day, there are roughly 700 domestic violence offenders in the pre-trial population, somewhere in the process between arraignment and disposition, he said.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach or treatment for domestic violence,” Peyton said. “Every situation is different.”
Because of Peyton’s approach, he gets to know each case and stays apprised of the situation, holding case management conferences with offenders every 30 days.
“There’s no substitute for continuing judicial review,” he said. “It’s been a great benefit. We’ve come to know these people as they cycle through.”
Probation officers, treatment providers, representatives from Victim Services and attorneys are all present during the conferences, in which Peyton reviews the defendant’s compliance, progress and treatment plan to make sure he or she is staying on track.
Pima County takes a unique approach to domestic violence cases, with a proactive law enforcement presence to arrest and keep offenders away from victims, and a collaborative effort between agencies that aim to help victims after arrests are made.
“It’s a huge amount of work, but I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “We put this program together because we had to change the culture around how we handled domestic violence cases.”
Assistance from Victim Services
Always present in Peyton’s courtroom, and in many other courtrooms, are representatives from Victim Services.
This division of the Pima County Attorney’s Office provides assistance and support at crime scenes and in the courtroom with a largely volunteer staff. Its services aren’t limited to domestic violence cases, but those cases occupy a significant amount of the division’s time.
So far this year, the crisis unit has responded to 306 domestic violence calls in the city and county — 58 percent of its call response. Victim Services has assisted victims in 1,900 court cases this year.
“Making a connection right away in the moment is really important,” said director Laura Penny. “There are people who have second thoughts the next day, so if we can get in and connect with people at the time of the incident, we have a better chance of developing some kind of rapport.”
Victim Services has 75 crisis volunteers and about 20 paid staff members who respond to calls from law enforcement agencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Each volunteer undergoes 35 hours of training and a background check, and some volunteers have been with the division for more than 20 years.
“This is really hard work. You’re dealing with people who are at their most vulnerable,” Penny said. “I’m in awe of our staff here.”
Crisis counselors respond to calls in teams and offer information and resources about the next steps and available services. In cases of strangulation or sexual assault, Victim Services will call in the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault for forensic services.
Victim Services is also involved in the court process, keeping victims informed every step of the way and attending court with them. Many times, the victim is forced to face her accuser in court, and an advocate will be there to help her.
It’s the same approach volunteers use when they encounter a victim in her home for the first time.
“We go in with no judgments. We just walk in and we meet people where they are. Everybody handles crisis differently,” Penny said.
Taking the case
There are about 14,000 domestic violence arrests in Pima County each year, County Attorney Barbara LaWall said.
Changes to domestic violence laws over the last 40 years, such as mandatory arrests, have aimed to crack down on offenders, but the relationship between agencies within Pima County has allowed the system to support the victim while still holding the offender responsible, she said.
“We have a strong collaboration with the sheriff’s department, the domestic violence court, the other agencies, and we’re all able to manage those cases in a way that is best for the victim,” LaWall said.
Sometimes part of the sentence for a domestic violence offender is up to 50 hours of counseling.
“This isn’t anger management,” she said. “It’s specific counseling given by people who are trained in the issues of power and control that batterers have.”
Mandatory supervised probation is also common. And for victims, local law enforcement is doing more to gather evidence for prosecution, instead of simply relying on victim testimony. All 911 tapes are collected into evidence and photographs are taken at the scene.
Victim Services completes a lethality assessment during its visit, which is also included as evidence. The form has questions designed to assess the victim’s risk of being killed by his or her offender — whether the offender has access to a gun, whether the victim has ever been choked, and whether the offender acts jealous or controlling.
Despite all the changes, there are still some big shortcomings in the system, La Wall said. The Tucson Police Department doesn’t use the lethality assessment form yet and there aren’t enough resources available through Emerge Center Against Domestic Violence to fulfill the needs in the city and county.
“We’ve accomplished so much,” she said, “but there’s still so much more that we could do.”
Helping the victims
The Emerge Center Against Domestic Violence has a 51-bed shelter, and children typically make up about 40 percent of the residents. With four or more women and children to a room, quarters are tight.
The large, open courtyard has a ramada, playground equipment and what will soon be a vegetable garden. There’s a playroom with art-focused activities for kids of all ages.
All services are based on each woman’s need, so Emerge staff will help victims find work, housing or even clothes.
“We have people who work on basic needs the whole time and others who are able to make significant changes in their lives,” said Anna Harper-Guerrero, vice president of organizational development. “It just depends on the level of trauma.”
The average length of stay is 40 days, although women can stay up to 120 days if needed. Residents prepare their meals, including a community dinner every night.
Because a long list of rules can replicate elements of power and control that women experience in abusive relationships, there aren’t really house rules, Harper-Guerrero said.
“Most things are negotiable, with the exception of drugs on the premises, violence, stealing and bringing in visitors,” she said.
Because many victims use substances to cope, returning intoxicated isn’t grounds for being asked to leave. Women will be offered medical attention and a conversation about addiction will follow, but Harper-Guerrero said they aren’t in the business of putting women out on the street.
“The biggest barrier these women face is trauma,” she said. “If we can at least give them one experience with trust in their life, that’s something.”
In the past year, there have been almost 1,400 domestic violence offenders on supervised probation in Pima County, all handled by Adult Probation Services.
With nine probation officers and five surveillance officers, the cases they monitor involve intimate partner relationships, as those can be the most lethal, said John Burkholder, supervisor of the domestic violence unit.
Two surveillance officers track misdemeanor warrants for domestic violence, which can include criminal damage, disturbing the peace, aggravated assault and more.
So far this year, the surveillance officers have arrested 109 domestic violence offenders on Pima County warrants.
“Generally, jail time alone won’t change the pattern,” Burkholder said. “You have to get them to want to change their lives and goals.”
About 80 percent of the probationers are men, all of whom are required to participate in the batterers education program, Burkholder said.
Female domestic violence offenders are sent to a program called Turning Point, which addresses that women who commit domestic violence are usually retaliating or acting in a traumatic response from a previous relationship.
“Probation is about behavioral change,” Burkholder said. “By engaging with us, it’s possible to change a lifetime pattern of unhealthy relationships.”