This year, the headlines about domestic violence are less gripping, less shocking.In 2011, stark headlines such as these read “Man beats girlfriend, kills himself,” “Rivera arrested for strangulation,” “North Platte woman dead, husband arrested,” “Chief Deputy arrested for violating order, resigns from sheriff’s office.”
This year, the headlines have been “Domestic dispute leads to drug charges," “Rape charges dropped” and “Cardenes sent to prison for attempted assault.”
Such headlines generally reflect reality -- crimes of domestic violence have been steadily declining for five years in Lincoln County, according to a recent report by the community domestic violence intervention coalition.
No totals are compiled yet for 2012, but in 2011, domestic assaults dropped by 11 percent, from 173 to 154, compared to the year before.
The rate of decline is even more sharp when studied over five years. Domestic assaults have dropped by 32 percent since 2007, according to the report.
Domestic assaults that are reported to police nearly always lead to arrests, not just shocking headlines.
Stiff consequences of domestic violence are now common practice. Since 1997, the North Platte Police make an arrest if they find evidence that the assault occurred. It's called a “pro-arrest” policy.
The policy leads not only to lots of arrests, but to counseling for first-time offenders and jail time for repeat offenders.
It seems to be working.
There were 244 arrests in 1997, the first fully year of the program. Total arrests peaked at 278 in 2000, then began to generally decline, dropping all the way to 154 in 2011.
Also, the courts issued fewer protection orders in 2011 – 15 percent less than in 2010 -- another indicator that less abuse is occuring.
However, a deeper look at the statistics show a high number of plea agreements. Forty percent of domestic violence charges during 2011 were reduced to lesser charges through plea bargains. It is the highest number of plea bargains in the 15-year history of the intervention program.
In 2010, only 29% of domestic assault charges were pled down.
Domestic violence is often a learned behavior, passed along from parents to children and even to acquaintances.
The hope of the ‘pro-arrest’ program is that people will see that an arrest is an expected consequence of assaulting a domestic partner and hopefully, stop themselves from striking out.
Once a suspect is arrested, counseling is strongly recommended if not mandated. In lieu of jail, men can enroll in a 36-week Batterer Intervention Program.
Women are directed to a 12-17 week women’s intervention and education program.
Men and women are both required to take drug and alcohol evaluations, get psychiatric evaluations, attend parenting programs and go to counseling.
Evolution of policy
In 1996, then county attorney Kent Turnbull (now a Lincoln County Judge), made it the prosecutor’s policy that domestic assault convicts could either do 45 days in jail or enroll in a 52-week batterer intervention program, under normal terms of probation, including no drugs or alcohol.
Turnbull's policy became the common practice, leading to the current program.
Today, a typical sentence for a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction is 14 months probation, plus participation in the Community Domestic Violence Intervention Program. The 45-day jail term is waived if the assaulter completes probation.
Participants must attend a group session one night a week for 52 weeks and pay $20 for each session.
The program holds perpetrators accountable, makes the victim safer, and helps the perpetrator learn to change their behavior, both verbally and physically, organizers say.
Of those who start the batterer’s program, nearly half finish it.
A few drop out because they move away, a few drop out because they were taking it voluntarily and decide to quit, but most of the dropouts violate the terms and conditions of the program.
Still, of the men who finish the program, only 16 percent are re-arrested for domestic violence, said Tonya Folk, Director of the Lincoln County Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
Also, the program is not only for adults.
In 2009, officials also started a program for teenage boys, ages 14-16, who strive to learn to control their anger during at 10-week period of classes and counseling.
The first year, six boys participated in the program. The next year there were none, and in 2011, six again.