Sept. 20, 2017
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Sinisha Karich

Addressing a Household Crisis

DA starts a slow shift in how prosecutors handle domestic violence casesby prioritize counseling even without convictions

May 3, 2017, 12:00 am

In the space of just 18 months, some names make repeat appearances on the long list of those charged with domestic violence in Santa Fe. An arrest in August 2015—with a previous case still stalled in the court system—is followed by another the following April. Charges are filed, but in the months while they creep through the justice system, tempers cool, people get back together, and, eventually, the couple fights again. And again, police are summoned.

What lies beneath the violence often goes unchanged.

The New Mexico Interpersonal Violence Data Central Repository found 86 percent of domestic violence cases filed in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court in 2015 were dismissed. Eighteen months ago, SFR published a story about the Santa Fe district attorney’s practice of pleading down or dismissing those cases, letting offenders go without punishment or new skills to keep it from happening again.

When Jennifer Padgett took over as district attorney in early 2016—completing Angela “Spence” Pacheco’s term after her early retirement and before Marco Serna was elected to the position in November—she announced an intention to address the problem and recruit staff to better track those cases. A year later, the office finds itself short-staffed and convictions remain rare, though fewer have been negotiated down to disorderly conduct.

Santa Fe District Attorney Marco Serna works to fast-track offenders to counseling.
Anson Stevens-Bollen
The dismissal rate likely hasn’t changed much, Serna concedes, though he can’t say for sure. A system for tracking dispositions is still on the to-do list, right after working through the existing case load. But Serna, four months into his term as DA, says he’s shifting the way these cases are handled, copying a model he’s seen work elsewhere to reduce repeat offenses.

Give it another three years, and that shift may show up in the statistics, he says.

Three years.

Meanwhile, Serna hopes to add a work-around that connects first- and second-time offenders to counseling without having to secure a conviction, borrowing a program from Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Court.

“We don’t want to break up the home and what we see typically is, they’re gonna stay together, so if we can encourage them to stay together in a better family life with the counseling, that’s our main goal,” Serna says. “If we can keep the families together, stop the violence and get counseling where it needs to be done, I think that’s the most effective way to reduce domestic violence.”

The approach has shown positive signs in Albuquerque, though one Santa Fe advocate for domestic violence victims has some misgivings.

As envisioned, Serna’s program would speed offenders from their initial court appearance into counseling programs for 26 or 52 weeks. In the meantime, charges would be deferred. Funding for staff and in-house counseling isn’t available yet, so the new DA is improvising: For cases that have come in since January, Serna has begun filing continuance motions while someone pursues counseling.

“It’s our form of a diversion program until there’s funding,” he says.

He hopes that defense attorneys will get on board and advise their clients that continuances and 26 weeks of counseling beat the risk of jail time.

Serna has also encouraged his attorneys to take witnesses to preliminary hearings in an attempt to secure sworn testimony earlier in the process, before witnesses can decide to recant their statements to police. That directive went out in January, but none of Serna’s prosecutors has yet taken that route.

An estimated one in three women in the state has experienced domestic violence. In New Mexico on a single day in 2013, domestic violence programs served 951 victims, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

A dismissal rate of around 70 or 80 percent fits with the national average, says Serna, who previously supervised domestic violence cases for the district attorney in Valencia County. As a crime that occurs behind closed doors, the crux often lies with securing testimony from one family member against another. That’s what stalls out some eight of 10 cases. Financial interdependence, family pressure and love are all contributors, Serna says.

That’s why counseling is absolutely key, says Samari Rodriguez-Rios, nonresidential service manager at Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families. Change the offender and you have a chance at denting the epidemic. But time with a professional must be properly focused and of the right duration. Support groups for offenders at Esperanza last 52 weeks, and Rodriguez-Rios cautions that instilling change takes the full year. How about 26 weeks? “I don’t think that’s enough,” she says.

“They are in so much denial that they do need more time,” Rodriguez-Rios says. “They do need the time to recognize how their abuse has impacted their families.”

When offenders first appear, they describe themselves as the victims—they didn’t do anything wrong, they’re just in this support group because the court ordered it.

“It’s like an addict,” she says. “If they don’t admit they have a problem, then they’re not going to do anything about it and no change will be achieved. If he can’t say, ‘I hit her. I knocked her over,’ he will probably repeat it in another relationship or the same one.”

Longstanding power dynamics in an abusive relationship can make it particularly difficult for survivors to stand in a courtroom and describe a history of violence, Rodriguez-Rios says. That’s why Esperanza staff are meeting with district court judges and family court services to increase understanding of what to expect from a survivor. Beyond the obvious barriers, testimony might be disjointed or change from one telling to the next as a result of trauma. So the option to take a less punitive approach to these cases in favor of focusing on the mental health of the perpetrators might be a good way to circumvent that system. But Rodriguez-Rios cautions against the approach of prioritizing the preservation of families.

“The philosophy of keeping the families together I think sometimes makes for more harm than good,” she says. “They should look at it from a safety perspective. … Especially when lethality risk is high, and safety is low, how is keeping the family together a good thing?”


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