Auditor: Systemic failures harm CA domestic violence program

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Nearly half of California domestic violence offenders failed to complete a required program designed to prevent future assaults and judges failed to impose new sanctions almost every time, the state auditor said Tuesday.

California requires domestic violence offenders who are placed on probation to take year-long batterer intervention classes. But auditors found that nearly half did not complete them. County probation departments did not report more than half the violations to the courts. And the courts did not impose any additional punishment to enforce the requirement in 90% of the cases where judges were told of the violations.

As a result of what auditors called long-running “systemic failures,” the requirement “had limited impact in reducing domestic violence,” Acting California State Auditor Michael Tilden said. The report comes after a state watchdog agency last year estimated that a third of women and a quarter of men in California will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

The programs offered for a fee by various providers generally include weekly two-hour classes with group discussions and ways to hold offenders accountable for the violence they bring to a relationship. They can be effective, auditors found in tracking a sample of 100 offenders: Nearly two-thirds of program dropouts went on to commit new domestic violence or other abuse-related crimes. By contrast, 20% of offenders who completed the program committed new crimes.

Auditors reviewed the programs in just five of California’s 58 counties, but they include Los Angeles County, home to about a quarter of the state’s population. The others are Alameda and Contra Costa in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with San Joaquin County in the Central Valley and Del Norte County on the North Coast.

All five “largely neglected their program oversight responsibilities,” Tilden said.

None had adequate standards for the batterer intervention programs and every one approved or renewed programs that did not fully comply with state law. With poor oversight, some providers did not properly supervise offenders or report things like absences to judges and probation officers as required. Auditors also faulted the probation departments for inadequately screening offenders for things like mental health or substance abuse problems that might keep them from completing a program, and for failing to complete annual required on-site reviews of the programs.

Those “inconsistent and ineffective practices … have plagued the batterer intervention system for at least three decades, creating a critical need for statewide guidance and oversight,” Tilden said.

Four studies since 1990 including two prior state audits have reached the same general conclusions, auditors said, showing that probation departments and the courts “have known for years of the significant shortcomings in their oversight of programs and offenders.”

The auditors recommended that lawmakers have the state Department of Justice oversee the program statewide. It could track domestic violence data, create standards for the programs and oversee providers, and make sure offenders are adequately supervised, they said.

States including Kansas, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington each have a central agency overseeing their program providers, auditors said.

Chief Probation Officers of California sought more flexibility in tailoring their approach several years ago, but lawmakers created test programs that give six counties — Napa, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Yolo — more ability to customize their batterer intervention systems to the needs of both victims and offenders. The test programs started in 2019 and are set to end next year as a way to discover what works best.

Karen Pank, the probation group’s executive director, agreed that the “current law often fails the survivors of domestic violence and that we need change.”

However, she said, “safety is not about an arbitrary number of violations. Instead, the focus must be on implementing evidence-based, individualized programming that specifically addresses an offender’s risks. This is the best way to improve safety for survivors and communities.”

The California Judicial Council should train judges in overseeing the program, auditors said, noting that sanctions could include changes to probation requirements or a brief sentence to county jail.

In one Los Angeles County case, auditors said an offender violated batterer program requirements nearly 175 times by failing to attend classes or court hearings. But the judge sent him back to the program repeatedly with no punishment, and extended his probation to nearly five years so he could finally complete a program that state law requires be finished in 18 months.

The Judicial Council said it has a limited role in training and overseeing judges, who have discretion over how they handle offenders, and already provides a guide and training program for judges handling domestic violence cases.

Probation departments in the five counties generally agreed with auditors, though those in Los Angeles and Del Norte counties had some objections to the findings and conclusions.

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