Philly hopes domestic violence court will prevent instead of punish

    Philadelphia has launched a new problem-solving court aimed at reducing domestic violence in the city.

    The initiative, which began Feb. 4, allows some domestic violence defendants to complete anger management courses or an intervention program for abusers in lieu of being prosecuted. The defendants must also pay restitution, and cannot be arrested or accused of domestic violence for several months.

    Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield, who is overseeing the diversion court, said the goal is to tackle the root causes of domestic violence, such as drug abuse, mental illness and anger issues. In turn, she hopes that the defendants won’t commit any future crimes.

    “What we’re attempting to do is to stop the cycle of violence,” Neifield said.

    Defense attorney William Spade said the new program will likely reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars on prisons. 

    “In the vast majority of cases, just incarcerating somebody is really not the most effective way of solving the problem,” Spade said. “It certainly does punish the person, but I think it just increases the probability of re-offending because it’s not really getting at the root causes.”

    Proponents also said the court program could hold accountable some abusers who might otherwise go scot-free. Battered women often refuse to testify against their partners due to fear, family ties or other issues, and the defendants’ charges are then dismissed.

    “It takes some of the pressure off of the complainants to come forward and testify because we’re diverting people so early in the process,” said Kirsten Heine, chief of the District Attorney office’s charging unit who helped create the program.

    The requirements for each defendant will be determined by criminal history and current charges.

    While the program is not open to people who have been charged with domestic violence offenses in the past, Heine said, some defendants who have committed other crimes can participate. Those defendants will typically need to enter a conditional guilty plea, however, which can be withdrawn if the program is completed successfully. 

    Generally, first-time offenders will not be required to take this step.

    Also, defendants who are accused of abusing an intimate partner, such as a wife or boyfriend, will need to attend a batterers’ intervention program. Those who are charged with domestic violence against a blood relative will go to anger management classes.

    Defendants will pay for the treatment on a sliding scale, according to the District Attorney’s office. Some defense attorneys said they are worried that their low-income clients may not be able to afford the courses. 

    “It’s a concern,” said Spade. “On the other hand, if the defendant were to end up getting convicted and incarcerated, that’s certainly going to cost him more economically than the cost of treatment.”

    The domestic violence diversion court is the newest problem-solving court established in Philadelphia. Project Dawn Court, which started as a pilot program in 2010, requires women with repeat prostitution charges to attend counseling for drug abuse and sexual trauma. Another program, meanwhile, allows some defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanors to do community service and pay a fine instead of going to trial.

    “Problem-solving courts are a trend in the criminal justice system because everybody realizes that the same method of criminal prosecution is not going to work for everybody,” said Heine, “and it’s not going to impact recidivism if it’s not designed in some way to specifically deal with the problems that the defendants have.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal