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Editorial: New judicial strategy could keep domestic-violence victims safer

Jul. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Domestic violence cases are among the most difficult for law enforcement and the justice system to handle.

By their very nature, they involve the most personal of relationships among people and are often fraught with extreme passions. And, as the name of such cases makes clear, those passions often escalate into violence or the threat of violence.

All too frequently, the result is that someone is injured, perhaps killed.

In Kanawha County, a new approach is being tried to keep cases from reaching such a serious level, and those involved say they believe it is doing a better job of keeping victims safer.

A pilot program, sparked by two deaths related to domestic violence in the past few years, began last summer in the home county of West Virginia's capital city.

Previously, the county's domestic violence cases were handled by 10 magistrates and five family court judges. The magistrates dealt with criminal charges related to the cases, while the family court judges handled the civil aspects, according to a report in the Sunday Gazette-Mail. The problem was that a magistrate and a family court judge handling separate pieces of the case often didn't know what the other was doing. That might lead to criminal charges being dropped against a domestic violence suspect, especially if the victim didn't show up to testify in court, but the danger posed by the suspect would not necessarily decrease. And the family court judge would not be aware that a suspect had been freed.

Under Kanawha County's new approach, all domestic violence cases are handled by just two judges -- one from family court and the other a magistrate. Under that setup, both judges are more familiar with the cases brought before them and that allows them to better assess whether a defendant continues to be a threat to the victim or is making strides to work things out. The two judges also find that they can dig deeper into cases and not rely so heavily on a victim's participation by making more use of testimony from police, paramedics and eyewitnesses.

The end result is that people who pose real threats are more likely to end up in jail and not be free to end up in another altercation with the victim. As one judge told the Gazette-Mail, he sleeps better at night because he believes victims or potential victims of domestic violence are safer.

That's an important result, considering the volume of domestic violence cases in the state. The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 14,880 domestic violence cases were filed in West Virginia Family Court in 2010 and that about a third of all homicides in the Mountain State are related to domestic violence.

With a toll of that magnitude, it's laudable that Kanawha County is trying a new strategy. The pilot program still has three more years, but if the early assessment holds up in the near future, other counties as well as the entire state may not want to wait that long to adopt the same approach. Lives often hang in the balance in these cases, and a firmer grasp on them could reduce the number of people who are hurt or killed.

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