Until this month, Baltimore County District Court judges could order domestic violence offenders into only one kind of treatment program, a 26-week therapeutic intervention designed for repeat batterers. But a new four-week educational program created at the request of the judges gives them an alternative.
The first-time offender domestic violence program, called "Healthy Relationships," became a sentencing option Sept. 1. Judges still are able to sentence repeat domestic violence offenders to the 26-week program. In both programs, the offender reports to group and individual sessions for two hours each week.
"The bench felt that, in the domestic violence area, there were no counseling options," said District Administrative Judge Alexandra N. Williams. She contrasted that to alcohol offenses, for which judges can sentence a person to an array of counseling options, from one seminar to in-patient treatment.
But Baltimore County's creation of a shorter, education-only program -- which appears to be the only one of its kind in the state -- goes against the national trend in domestic violence programs, which is to lengthen them and make them therapeutic, said Leslie Kayne, director of Turnaround, one of the three agencies authorized to give court-ordered treatment in the county.
"On our own, we wouldn't have come up with this," Kayne said.
The judges said they'd been increasingly reluctant to send people believed to be first-time offenders to the 26-week program. Judicial referrals to the program dropped last year to less than half the number three years ago.
Twilah Shipley, director of the Family Violence Council, part of the Maryland attorney general's office, said she would await results of the first few months of the program to see if it might work in other parts of the state.
"The jury is still out on how the program will work," she said. "This is a pilot, so we'll see how it goes."
The county's deputy state's attorney, Stephen Bailey, said he hopes that batterers who should be in the 26-week program won't be sentenced to the shorter one.
"The way it has been explained to us, the judges are trying to target an offender population that has never been ordered into counseling," he said. "If that's the ultimate goal, then I'm excited about the new program. We're going to watch the figures closely to make sure that offenders in abusive relationships are not ordered into this program."
Marci Van De Mark, interim director of the county's Department of Social Services, said the domestic violence counseling agencies will carefully monitor incoming offenders to ensure that "the right person goes to the right program."
Before treatment in either program begins, the offender undergoes a two-hour intake process that includes interviews and a criminal background check, Van De Mark said. If someone is deemed inappropriate for one of the programs, the agency will recommend that the judge alter the sentence to put the person in the other, she said.
"It can happen that someone can slip through the cracks at the court level," she said. "But we have a mechanism for making sure that is corrected."
If there are indications that a person is involved in a continuing abusive relationship, that person would not be eligible for the four-week program, said Kayne of Turnaround.
The program comes at a time when the number of domestic violence incidents in the county again is on the rise, according to police statistics.
After falling from more than 13,000 domestic-related incidents in 2001 to 10,087 in 2002, the number climbed last year to 10,648.
Bailey said there were about 2,100 domestic-related criminal cases filed last year, and about 700 resulted in a guilty finding.
But just 200 of those offenders were sent into court-ordered counseling, according to social services statistics.
Bailey said that concerns him.
"Far below the number of people who could have been referred were actually referred," he said. "If people who are in abusive relationships are not in batterers intervention, how can we not expect them to be back in the court system?"
Williams, the administrative judge, said she could not speak for all judges about why there was a drop in the number of counseling referrals -- from 514 in 2000 to 204 last year.
"But the more options there are available, the better any judge will be at forming successful probation terms," she said.