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Court Gets Results by Keeping Close Eye on Family Abusers

`What we’re trying to do is fashion a system to deal with a crushing volume and make it work efficiently.’

January 28, 1995

By CHIP JACOBS
Special to the Times

The middle-aged man with the torn blue T-shirt and shackled wrists looked surprised when Judge Dan Oki broke the news in a West Covina courtroom:

“I’m going to be your probation officer,” Oki told the convicted wife-beater, spelling out the terms of his release and setting a date for the man to report to him in two months. “We’ll see you back here.”

With a mountain of family abuse crimes pouring in daily, Citrus Municipal Court has become the county’s first judicial district to dedicate one of its courtrooms to hear nothing but domestic violence cases. As part of the yearlong pilot program launched in October, Oki is doubling as the probation officer, freeing overburdened county workers.

The aim is twofold: more consistent sentencing of abusers, and better probation follow-up, since defendants in domestic violence cases are notorious for failing to follow the rules of probation.

Knowing they face the wrath of a judge who can put them in jail has made a big difference, court officials said. Since the program started, there has been 90% compliance with probation conditions, a significantly higher rate than before.

The concept was pioneered by Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Burns, who oversees all prosecutions at the Citrus court complex. After watching different judges hand down different sentences for misdemeanor family abuse crimes-largely because there are no uniform state sentencing guidelines for them-Burns decided to try something novel.

He had a lot to work with.

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Of the 34,000 misdemeanors filed at Citrus each year, nearly a fifth are related to domestic violence. Before October, those cases were spread out among Citrus’ six courtrooms and heard with other routine misdemeanors such as petty theft or driving under the influence.

Now, however, there is more consistent sentencing, with first-time family abusers generally receiving 30 days in the County Jail rather than the previous average of four or five days.

“What we’re trying to do,” Burns said, “is fashion a system to deal with a crushing volume and make it work efficiently.”

The new system has drawn praise from victims used to the molasses-like legal process that often fails to curb repeat beatings-and Oki has a bulging file to prove it. Since word of the new court spread, he has received more than a dozen letters praising the get-tough approach.

“We cannot begin to tell you what a wonderful peace of mind you have brought to our holidays,” one woman wrote.

Once freed from jail, abusers must return to court within two weeks to prove they have enrolled in a specialized treatment program. After that, they must face Oki again in 60 days for a progress report, then come back again in another two months. Failure to do so automatically produces an arrest warrant. Under the previous system, abusers would be referred to parole officers, who would report to the court in six months.

Citrus is also using an in-home breath alcohol testing device if intoxication is found to be an underlying problem. The users must blow into the sophisticated device, connected to the telephone, three times daily to show they are not drinking.

“There’s something about that machine in the house, coming to court several times and going in for counseling that forces them to deal with their problem,” prosecutor Burns said. “If they fail, there’s nothing we can do but incarcerate them for longer periods of time.”

In addition, Oki said, as defendants learn that he sentences abusers harshly, they are more likely to plead guilty from the start and agree to follow his orders, reducing the overload of court cases.

The other Citrus courtrooms, meanwhile, are cleared of their domestic violence load. The courthouse, which covers Azusa, Baldwin Park, Glendora, Irwindale, West Covina, parts of Walnut and nearby unincorporated areas, ranks behind only Los Angeles and Long Beach as the busiest municipal courthouse in the county.

Citrus officials are confident that their concept can be adopted at other courts. At Rio Hondo Municipal Court in El Monte, officials have assigned all domestic violence cases to two of their six courtrooms. Unlike those in Citrus, however, those two courtrooms are also used for other types of cases.

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Except for a $300 photocopy machine, taxpayers are feeling little pinch from the pilot program, since it is up to the offender to pay for the mandatory counseling and the breath-testing device. The two can cost up to $1,500, but the judge can reduce or waive fees for defendants who cannot afford them.

One San Gabriel Valley woman expressed happiness about the tightening of the judicial system after her estranged husband, who had attacked her, was sentenced to 90 days in jail for violating a restraining order to stay away from her.

“I feel this is a good thing,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “But I still don’t think (my husband) will change. It’s a shame.”

Deputy Public Defender Mark Nelson agreed that the experiment is working. Frequently, he said, county probation officers must juggle scores of cases each, allowing offenders to skip follow-up meetings or worse. By working solely on domestic violence cases, Oki is able to follow each one more closely.

“The accountability is much greater because they know the judge has the power to place them in custody. It’s pretty sobering,” Nelson said.