The Challenges of Differentiating among Domestic Violence Offenders

Ronald B. Adrine, the administrative and presiding judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court talks about differentiating
between defendants who are habitual batterers and defendants who are one-time perpetrators (such as those acting
in self defense).

ROBERT V. WOLF: How, I’m Rob Wolf, director
of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today I’m speaking with Ronald B. Adrine, who is the administrative
and presiding Judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. And he’s here in New York at the Center for Court Innovation
at our open house, visiting some of our projects and meeting people involved with domestic violence courts and domestic
violence dockets around the country to share ideas and share best practices. Welcome to New York and the Center for
Court Innovation.

JUDGE RONALD ADRINE: Thanks, Rob. Thanks for having

WOLF: I wanted to ask you about some of the interesting work
you’re doing in Cleveland. I thought we could start with how you first got involved with the dedicated domestic
violence docket. I understand that you volunteered to assume leadership in the docket when it was first created.
Maybe you can tell me about that.

ADRINE: Well I’ve been active
in the area of trying to come up with effective interventions revolving around domestic violence issues since the
early 1990’s, and actually before that. I’ve been on the bench since 1982 and have had domestic violence as
part of my docket ever since. Beginning in the early 90’s I’ve been working at it on a national level. So towards
the end of the 90’s an opportunity came to Cleveland to receive some money from the federal government to put together
what, for all intents and purposes, was a vertical prosecution pilot program. The police and prosecutor’s office,
as well as the Witness Victim Service Center in Cleveland, had all agreed to handle misdemeanor violations of the
domestic violence laws in such a way that the same detectives, the same prosecutors, the same advocates would all
service a certain percentage of cases. So when I heard that they were gonna do that, I volunteered outside the grant
to allow them to have all of those cases to be heard on my docket because otherwise they would have gone to 12 judges
throughout the courthouse and it would have just been maddening to try to keep up with the whole lot. So that’s
how it started.

WOLF: So I understand that recently, the program
has been expanded and you’ve added to it an interesting element—the deferred judgment initiative, which as far
as I know is unique to domestic violence courts and domestic violence dockets around the country. So maybe you could
explain to me what that is.

ADRINE: The deferred judgment portion
of the docket came about as a result of some conversations I’d had with a lot of people. I’ve worked in
the advocacy community, as well as in the prosecution and, and the police community, which pointed out that there
were people who were being arrested, charged, and convicted of domestic violence who clearly were not batterers.
And in my mind, the domestic violence laws in the United States were put together specifically—not to reach every
person that involve themselves in violence in an interpersonal relationship—but those people who were using violence
for purposes of control and power. A lot of other people get swept in because of the definitions that are used across
the country of what constitutes domestic violence. So, for instance, if I know that a person that I’m involved with
has been building up towards striking me, and they come towards me with their fist balled up, I might pick up a pot
and I might strike them before they strike me. Technically speaking, I’m guilty of domestic violence, even if
there are years that have gone on when I’ve just taken it. So knowing that there are some people who are out there
who fall in those—that kind of a category—the real challenge is to try to look at every domestic violence situation
and determine whether or not we’re dealing with someone who is truly a batterer, or whether we’re dealing
with someone who is reacting to stimulus that they know is going to result in their own injury.

How do you get the knowledge you need to differentiate?

we did was we created a series of screens, beginning with the police, who are the first responders. Asking that they
fill out a very short kind of checklist questionnaire that would identify whether or not somebody is likely to have
been the primary physical aggressor. The prosecutor can then compare what they got against the police report and
make a second screen as to whether or not the right person has been charged. If they decide that the wrong person
was charged, they can indicate that this person should not be the primary physical aggressor and move on. Their lawyer
has the opportunity to agree with the police, and the prosecutor could ask that the court take a look at this situation
and see whether or not their client is eligible for the deferred judgment initiative. We then give it to the probation
department, which conducts yet another screen to make a determination as to whether or not this is an appropriate
person. And then they give it to the court, and the court goes to the final screen. There’s only a small number
of cases that are going to have all the predicates on the front end that will cause them to get a second look past
the police department’s initial determination.

WOLF: I see.

ADRINE: So it’s only those cases where you know, there’s no prior
history of violence, there is no history of emotional battering that we’re able to determine. There is no history
of, of severe problems in the individual’s background, because all of those things are done by the probation
department at the final check to make sure that we’ve got people who are unlikely to engage in the kind of conduct
moving forward. Because what we’re trying to do with that group is to save them the types of problems that they
otherwise would face if they are convicted of domestic violence. That is, they could be prevented from engaging in
certain kinds of occupations, like healthcare. They might be prevented from getting certain kinds of licensing and
bonding in certain states. They may be cut off from certain kinds of federal assistance. We’ve got a list of
close to 20 different collateral damages that can be done to individuals convicted of domestic violence. So if somebody
is a batterer, I don’t have a problem with that individual having to deal with all of that. But if you’ve
got somebody who really is not a batterer—and worst case scenario is really a victim, who on one occasion has decided
to fight back, I’ve got a problem with that individual having to suffer that long list of collateral damages.

WOLF: And is it always—do they always fit that category, if they do pop up
with the program? That they were predominantly a victim, except in this situation?

It might be a situation, for instance, where you’ve got a couple of folks that were involved in an argument
that actually got out of hand. Where—just to use as an example—one person pushed another, maybe against a wall, and
as a result, a picture fell and there’s a cut on the head. Okay. Bad business, no doubt about it. But one shove,
resulted in an injury, technically guilty of domestic violence, actually guilty of domestic violence under the way
that the law is posited. But is this person likely to engage in that kind of conduct again? Well, maybe yes, maybe
no, but that’s the reason to do the scrutiny on the front end, rather than letting this person go all the way
down through the system and ultimately end up with this kind of conviction. In Ohio, for instance, once they have
a domestic violence conviction, you know, if it’s for a first degree or misdemeanor or higher, they can’t
come back into court later and ask that that record be sealed or expunged. So they’re stuck with that record,
you know, forever more. So that being the case, I think that we want to be careful as to who we put in. And we’ve
been extremely careful. I think in the close to two years that we’ve had this deferred judgment initiative,
only about four people out of the several hundred that we’ve seen have qualified for placement.

You’ve made a persuasive argument that there are clearly people who would benefit from this and who should benefit
from this. I wonder why it’s not more common that we hear about this, more—programs like this, you know, trying
to make that differentiation between types of defendants.

In the last two years, there has been an awful lot of discussion, particularly in the advocacy community, but I think
also in other parts of law enforcement and the criminal justice community about the context of violence between intimate
partners. And the one constant in all that is how difficult it is to make these determinations. And I think that
the reason why you’re not seeing efforts to do this is that a lot of people are saying, “We don’t think
we could make those determinations.” The thing that I guess I was doing with regard to this program, and it’s
the thing I’ve had to explain to judges who have followed me going in, is that a program like the deferred judgment
initiative is an exclusive program, not an inclusive program. When I’m looking at individuals, I’m looking for
reasons to put them into the regular criminal justice process, not reasons to put them into the deferred judgment
initiative. This deferred judgment initiative should only be for a limited number of people who we are confident
that we have screened in such a way so that within the parameters of human fallibility, we are pretty sure that they
are not going to engage in any more violent conduct. If we can’t say that almost to the high standard of beyond
a reasonable doubt, then they shouldn’t be placed in the program.

Let me ask you just about your experience here in New York. What have you found most valuable over the last couple
of days here?

ADRINE: As always, it’s an enlightening experience
because the things that you learn here are cutting edge. Yesterday we were looking at Integrated Domestic Violence
Courts, it was really interesting to see how both criminal and civil cases can actually be melded together and the
issues involving one family be heard by one judge, in a way that allows for a constriction of the number of court
appearances, and which allows that one judge to know just about everything that he or she needs to know about the
dynamics of that family to make good judgments, not only in the criminal case, but also in matters having to do with
custody, having to do with the matrimonial thing—that is, divorce—and all in one shot. It’s really kind of phenomenal.
And the complexity of trying to put that together in a way to make it work, and the dedication of the judges and
the other court actors, from the public defender’s office to the prosecuting attorney’s office, to the
court officers themselves, it’s just—it’s breathtaking. So I mean it’s been a really eye-opening experience.

WOLF: I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. This is Rob Wolf, I’ve
been speaking with Ronald B. Adrine, who is the administrative and presiding judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court.
I hope you have a safe trip home.

ADRINE: Thanks, Rob.

WOLF: It’s been a pleasure.

Same here.

June 2009