DA candidates push domestic violence ‘fast-track’ program
October 13, 2008
Although Republican Elizabeth Oldham and Democrat Tammy Stewart are locked in a contested race for District Attorney of the 14th Judicial District, they see eye-to-eye on a need to speed up prosecution of domestic violence cases.
Frequently termed “domestic violence fast-track,” such a program aims to bring alleged offenders to court quickly, even sentencing them the day after an alleged offense. Proponents of fast-tracking domestic violence cases cite benefits for the perpetrators and the victims – both get access to services they need faster than if their cases work their way through the court system in the standard process.
“If you bring the offenders to court quickly, you get them into treatment quickly,” Oldham said.
Domestic violence cases also have a tendency to become more difficult to prosecute as time goes on because of family dynamics and the cycle of violence, said Diane Moore, executive director of Advocates Against Battering and Abuse.
“You have a better chance of prosecuting successfully (when you fast-track), because you don’t have a victim who’s recanting yet,” Stewart said.
Oldham was involved in setting up a fast-track program in Summit County, during her stint as a deputy district attorney in the 5th Judicial District. She returned to Grand County, where she began her seven-year career as a prosecutor, in 2007. She became Assistant District Attorney earlier this year.
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Stewart emphasized that establishing a domestic violence fast-track program in the 14th Judicial District does not cost any extra money, rather it is about reprioritizing time in the District Attorney’s Office.
Stewart currently is an assistant Moffat County Attorney, prosecuting child abuse cases, and operates a private practice in Steamboat Springs. Stewart spent 12 years as a prosecutor in Colorado, including two in Routt County.
The victor in the Nov. 4 election will replace Republican Bonnie Roesink, who is retiring at the end of her current term after 21 years as a prosecutor in the 14th Judicial District.
Fast-track in action
The state’s first domestic violence fast-track program has been operating for nearly a decade. Although fast-track has been generally well received in El Paso County and provided resources and referrals to 74 percent of domestic violence victims in 2007, exactly how you quantify or measure success is unclear, Victim Advocate Amy Barton said.
Last year, 37 percent of people arrested on domestic violence charges in El Paso County were repeat offenders.
“It’s really sad, because the people who are offenders tend to come back several times, whether they went through fast-track or not,” said Barton, who runs the domestic violence fast-track program in El Paso County.
Anyone arrested on suspicion of domestic violence charges in El Paso County appears in court the next business day at 1 p.m. for their advisement. At the court appearance, defendants are advised of the charges against them and of their rights, and the judge addresses any bond amount or protection orders.
But fast-track takes it a step further, with the District Attorney’s Office inviting the accused to enter their plea immediately and offering plea agreements at the first court appearance – often less than 24 hours after the alleged incident.
“If they plead guilty, they’re sentenced that day, rather than the case stretching out for weeks or months,” Barton said.
Victims are referred to the court’s victim advocate office earlier in the morning, facilitating quick access to any legal, medical or social services they need, Barton said.
“We go over what to expect in court,” Barton said. “We discuss what the victim would like to see out of the case, and refer them to community resources.”
El Paso County, part of the 4th Judicial District, launched the state’s domestic violence fast-track pilot program in 1999 and adopted it formally in 2001. The program handled 2,799 domestic violence cases last year and resolved 31 percent of its cases in fast-track, Barton said.
Some defense attorneys are against fast-tracking cases because the accused have only a short period of time to contact and consult with representation before they are offered pleas, Stewart said.
“Some people think perpetrators get arrested, get pleas shoved in their face and plead guilty out of fear,” Barton said.
The trade-off is that domestic violence cases typically become more difficult to prosecute as time goes on, Stewart said.
“Witnesses are hard to find, sometimes victims and their families move out of state,” Moore said. “Oftentimes, victims will go in and talk to the D.A. requesting charges be dropped – out of fear, out of guilt, out of wanting him to come home and not lose his job.”