Report 2005-130 Summary - November 2006

Batterer Intervention Programs:

County Probation Departments Could Improve Their Compliance With State Law, but Progress in Batterer Accountability Also Depends on the Courts

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of batterer intervention programs (programs) in California revealed the following:

  • Only about half of batterers complete a program as required by state law.
  • Only two batterers in our sample of 125 ever completed a program after committing three or more violations of their program or probation terms.
  • The county probation departments (departments) we visited had various attendance policies, and all were more lenient than statutory provisions, which allow for only three absences for good cause.
  • Rather than notifying the courts as required by state law, some departments are counseling and referring batterers back to programs after they have been terminated for violations.
  • Courts sometimes do not impose any consequences on batterers, even those with multiple prior violations.
  • On-site program reviews required by statute are not being performed consistently.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

State law requires an individual who is placed on probation for a crime of domestic violence to complete a 52-week batterer intervention program (program) approved by a county probation department (department). However, only about half of the batterers placed on probation actually fulfill the program requirement. Our review of a sample of batterers indicated that more than one quarter of those who had completed programs did so after committing violations of program or probation requirements. Such violations can cause batterers to take longer than a year to complete their programs. Additionally, the departments do not always report violations to the courts. Further, some courts notified of violations simply return batterers to programs without imposing any additional jail time, even though at times the batterer had multiple prior violations. This lack of batterer accountability reduces the effectiveness of programs designed to alleviate the problem of domestic violence in the State. Program effectiveness is also hampered by the departments' failure to adhere strictly to the statutory requirements for program monitoring.

The programs, which are funded with the fees participating batterers pay, are structured courses designed to stop the use of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse to gain or maintain control over a person such as a spouse or cohabitant. According to information provided by the departments, California has more than 450 approved programs. State law mandates that the departments assume certain responsibilities, putting them in the role of principal overseers of the programs. Each department must design and implement an approval process for its programs and annually perform on-site program reviews. State law requires a department to notify the court if a batterer is violating any probation requirements and gives the court the authority to administer consequences.

The departments indicated that at least 25,000 batterers in California were enrolled in programs as of May 2006. However, based on statistics provided by the departments and our review of a sample of 125 batterers, only about half of these individuals are likely to complete their programs. Interestingly, 72 percent of the batterers in our sample who had completed a program did so without violating the terms of the programs or their probation, but only two batterers in our sample of 125 completed the program after having three or more such violations. Although the most frequent violation involved noncompliance with attendance policies, the departments we reviewed had various policies regarding program attendance, and all were more lenient than statutory provisions, which allow for only three absences for good cause. In discussing their policies, departments cited the need for greater flexibility in attendance policies to allow as many batterers as possible to complete their assigned programs. Consequently, it may be time for the Legislature to consider whether these requirements are practical for the conditions faced at the local level.

As a result of violations, the average length of time it took batterers in our sample to finish the 52-week requirement was more than 15 months. The maximum completion time allowed by statute is 18 months, unless a court modifies the requirement. A primary reason for the significant extension beyond one year is that when a batterer is terminated from a program—for violating the attendance policy, for instance—the batterer must obtain a referral directing him or her back to a program. Obtaining this referral from the court or, in some cases, the department, takes time, and if a batterer commits multiple violations, that time can accumulate.

Of the departments we visited, the San Joaquin department allowed its batterers to accrue the highest number of program violations; thus, the average program completion time in that county was slightly more than 18 months. One reason batterers in San Joaquin County accrued numerous violations while on probation was that the department often followed a practice of counseling and referring batterers back to programs after being terminated for violations, rather than notifying the courts. Other departments also employed this practice but to a more limited extent. The practice is an apparent violation of statutory provisions that require departments to notify the courts of violations and, given our finding that very few batterers actually complete programs after more than two violations, appears only to delay the inevitable consequences that follow noncompliance with program requirements—namely, revocation of probation and further sentencing by the court.

Results from our sample indicated that when a court received notification of a violation, the most frequent response was to refer the batterer back to the program after he or she had served some amount of jail time. It is this ability to impose consequences on noncompliant batterers that makes the role of the courts so crucial in batterer accountability. In fact, some counties have expanded on that role by having batterers appear regularly in court for progress reviews. This appears to provide greater accountability and may improve outcomes. Despite the positive impact the courts can have, sometimes courts do not impose any consequences on batterers, even those with multiple prior violations. Moreover, according to some department officials and evidence we obtained in one county, the courts are sometimes incorrectly sentencing batterers to 16-week anger management programs, rather than 52-week batterer intervention programs as the statute requires.

The departments could improve their monitoring of the programs by adhering more closely to statutory requirements. Although state law requires departments to design and implement a program approval process, we found that none of the five departments we visited had written procedures to guide staff in analyzing and approving applications or application renewals. Additionally, we found that two departments we visited could not provide documentation of their reviews of the applications they had approved in the last five years. However, the applications approved in the last five years that we were able to review generally conformed to statutory requirements.

State law requires the departments to conduct annual on-site reviews of their programs, including monitoring sessions, to determine whether they are adhering to statutory requirements. To ensure that the programs are complying with statutory requirements, the departments would also need to perform on site reviews of program administration, such as the use of sliding fee schedules to assess the program fees batterers pay. However, based on our interviews with staff at all 58 departments and our review of selected programs at five departments, on-site reviews are not performed consistently. For example, the five departments we visited skipped years and programs in their on-site review efforts. Among the examples of programs straying from state requirements, we found one program that used an unqualified facilitator to oversee counseling sessions that were not single gender, as called for by law, and sessions that sometimes consisted only of movies that were not even related to domestic violence.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To maintain a balance between upholding the standard of batterer accountability and granting departments the flexibility needed to help batterers complete their assigned programs, the Legislature should consider revising the attendance provisions in the law to more closely align with what the departments and courts indicate is a more reasonable standard.

To improve their ability to hold batterers accountable for their actions, the departments, in conjunction with the courts and other interested county entities, should jointly consider taking the following actions:

  • Establish and clearly notify batterers of a set of graduated consequences for violations of program requirements or probation terms. To maintain the credibility of the graduated consequences, the departments and the courts must administer them consistently.
  • Establish a limit to the number of violations they allow before a batterer's probation is revoked and he or she is sentenced to jail or prison.
  • Eliminate the practice of having probation officers counsel and direct batterers back to programs in which they failed to enroll or from which they have been terminated for excessive absences, and establish a consistent practice of notifying the court of all such violations, allowing the court to set the consequence for the violations.
  • If they have not already done so, implement a practice of regular court appearances in which batterers receive both negative and positive feedback on program compliance.

The courts should consistently sentence individuals placed on probation for a crime of domestic violence to 52-week batterer intervention programs approved by the department. Courts should not substitute any other type of program, such as a 16-week anger management program, for a 52-week batterer intervention program.

To ensure consistency in its approval reviews, each department should adopt clear, written policies and procedures for approving and renewing the approval of programs, including a description of how department personnel will document reviews of program applications.

To ensure that programs adhere to statutory requirements, each department should consistently perform the on-site reviews required by state law. Specifically, a department should annually perform at least one administrative review and at least one program session review for each program.

AGENCY COMMENTS

Although our report contains certain recommendations that are broadly directed to all California probation departments and courts, and others that are directed to the Legislature, we asked the five departments we visited, with input from the courts in the respective counties when possible, to respond to the recommendations that relate to them. The department in Butte County said that it reviewed the report and plans to implement the recommendations. The Los Angeles department, in consultation with the court in that county, believes some of our recommendations interfere with the discretion of individual judges but agrees with the recommendations regarding the monitoring of programs. The department in Riverside County indicates that it needs time to consult with the court and that it will provide a response at a later date. The San Joaquin department outlines its plans to implement several of the report's recommendations but adds that certain constraints, such as jail overcrowding and limited court resources, do not make it feasible to implement others at this time. Finally, the department in San Mateo County adds some points of clarification and raises some concerns but does not specify whether it will be implementing the recommendations.


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