No prison time.
All Sean Jones had to do to avoid prison was to attend some domestic violence classes and check in with a probation officer once a month.
Jones felt relieved as District Judge Kevin McCray approved a plea deal in an Oklahoma City courtroom last May. Jones, now 27, pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery after holding a pillow over his girlfriend’s face during an argument at his Oklahoma City apartment in August 2017, court records show. Jones said he also shoved her and dragged her with his arm around her shoulders and neck.
Jones’ sentence is typical for domestic violence offenders – one year of probation with weekly classes in a batterers intervention program. The classes seemed a small price to pay to avoid prison. But after a few months, he said, the fees and time commitment became overwhelming. He missed too many classes and was kicked out of the program.
Jones’ failure to finish embodies the flaws in one of Oklahoma’s primary efforts to reduce domestic violence incidents, which reached the highest count in a decade last year, according to data from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Every year, hundreds of domestic abusers are ordered by the courts to attend 52 weeks of batterer intervention classes. But an Oklahoma Watch review of reports filed with the state by intervention providers found that most offenders don’t complete the program.
Experts say batterers intervention can work, reversing abusive and controlling behavior, but only if offenders complete the course. When they don’t, there is often little or no punishment.
Victim advocates say without consequences for abusers, there is no justice for victims, and abuse is more likely to recur.
Reasons for Intervention
Oklahoma has close to 60 batterers intervention programs across the state, many operated by nonprofit providers. Under state law, the program is court-ordered for offenders convicted of domestic abuse who do not serve time.
Groups of up to 16 offenders meet every week for 90 minutes to talk about their motivation for committing physical and emotional abuse. The goal is for them to take responsibility for their actions and learn self-control and how to form healthy relationships. It is aimed at those guilty of intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect – behaviors that experts say are learned through years of exposure to coercive or violent relationships.
Dozens of studies since the 1980s have shown the programs can reduce recidivism for offenders who complete the course.
A 2007 study of Chicago participants found that completing a program reduces the risk of re-arrest by 40% to 60%. Offenders who didn’t complete were twice as likely to be re-arrested for abuse.
Men who served jail time for domestic violence offenses were far more likely than those assigned to batterers intervention to be re-arrested, a 2015 study by university researchers in Texas and Michigan found.
Matt Youngberg, a program leader for Domestic Violence Intervention Services in Tulsa, said he doesn’t need a study to prove that intervention works. He sees it every week.
“They’re coming up to me and saying they’ve never thought about it that way before or that they understand what they did was wrong,” Youngberg said.
Last year, the nonprofit saw 560 batterers. More than 200 were booted from the program and 30 finished.
High incompletion rates are due to several factors.
One is the fact that offenders must pay the bill. Each program sets its own price, but most charge an intake fee of $100 to $200 for the initial assessment plus $25 to $35 per week, or up to about $1,800 a year. Many programs require payment up front. In court, offenders often cite the cost as a reason for missing classes.
Another factor is the year-long commitment and limits on missing classes. In Oklahoma, offenders cannot miss more than three consecutive sessions or seven total, according to rules set by the Attorney General’s office, which certifies and oversees the programs.
Oklahoma Watch reviewed 70 batterer-intervention program reports from 38 organizations that provided the services between 2016 and 2019 and reported to the attorney general. Of the total, 61 program reports provided enough data to calculate a completion rate, meaning a percent of clients that began treatment that year or a percent of total clients, including also those who continued treatment from the previous year. Of the 61, a large majority, 54, had completion rates below 50%.
Most offenders are terminated for missing too many classes and have to start over. Others are expelled for bad behavior, like not taking the classes seriously or making threatening remarks. Some never start the program at all. And some reoffend.
Being terminated from the program is grounds to revoke a sentence and send the abuser to jail or prison.
In many Oklahoma courts, failing to finish brings little or no consequence, which also likely contributes to high incompletion rates.
A Return to Court
By April, it had been nearly a year since Jones’ sentencing and he once again stood in front of Judge McCray to ask for a second chance.
The District Attorney’s office had filed a motion to revoke his sentence, which could result in prison time. But Jones wasn’t worried.
Before his appearance, his attorney explained that since Jones had completed some classes and was making efforts to pay his fines, the judge would likely allow him to try again. And he was right.
The state’s attorney and Jones’ attorney huddled near the bench and spoke to McCray, who Jones said smiled a lot and seemed friendly. Eventually the three came to an agreement, and the motion to revoke was put on hold. Jones was allowed to reenroll in the program.
Lack of Accountability
Program facilitators track attendance and progress, but it is up to local prosecutors and judges to decide if punishment is merited should an offender not finish the course.
In Oklahoma County, judges take turns presiding over revocation court, where offenders appear if they don’t meet their sentencing requirements. Depending on the judge, offenders might be sentenced to jail or prison time for not fulfilling their obligations. Or they might get the program requirement waived and never have to finish.
Matthew Levey, who oversees batterers intervention at Court Assistance Programs, which provides pre-trial and post-conviction services in Oklahoma County, said he remembers one offender who was convicted of two domestic assaults and did not meet any of his program requirements. The judge waived the order and two weeks later the offender was back in court after cutting his victim’s face and almost killing her, Levey said.
“There’s only one entity in that situation that can actually hold that individual accountable and that is the court,” Levey said.
Victim advocates and facilitators say accountability is higher in counties with a domestic violence court. The dockets require offenders to return to court for regular reviews from judges familiar with local intervention programs and who receive updates from facilitators. Only a few Oklahoma counties have these specialized dockets. Oklahoma County plans to add one starting in February. Still, the consequences can be mild for non-compliant offenders.
In Seminole County, Judge Brett Butner had a calm, compassionate tone during a domestic violence court session in September. He saw close to 20 offenders in 45 minutes, and about half were in compliance with intervention classes. Some said they missed classes or hadn’t started because they couldn’t pay. Others said they were busy and didn’t make the time. Butner gave them all another chance and didn’t impose sanctions.
Tulsa County also holds a monthly domestic violence court session. In September, District Judge Kelly Greenough saw nearly 100 offenders with felony convictions in fewer than six hours.
Everyone who was kicked out of their program starts over. No one gets a pass, and no one is locked up. A few get additional service work hours as punishment. One man had to write an essay about how to make better life decisions.
Last year, 403 offenders were ordered to batterers intervention in Tulsa County. About 60% of offenders’ reviews were in compliance, according to district court data. During the first half of 2019, 217 offenders were ordered to take the programs and 68% of their reviews were compliant.
Program advocates say Tulsa’s compliance rates are among the highest in the state, and likely double those in rural areas where programs are sparse and fewer judges are trained in handling domestic violence cases. But no one knows for sure because most courts do not track program compliance.
‘You Have to Do This’
Jones’ second attempt at batterers intervention was worse than the first. This time he told his attorney he never reenrolled and did not attend any sessions.
“He looked at me all serious and said, ‘Man, you have to do this. It’s mandatory,’” Jones said.
His attorney advised him to reenroll and start classes as soon as possible to avoid going back to court or having his sentence revoked. A few weeks later, Jones started the program again.
Questions of Oversight
The rules from the Attorney General’s office are supposed to increase victim safety and create consistency among programs. But limited oversight by the agency makes it easier for programs to falter and offenders to skirt the system.
One program manager at the Attorney General’s office certifies and oversees all of the state’s batterer intervention programs and victim services providers. There are more than 100 programs scattered across the state. The position has been empty since September.
Programs can begin offering classes after an application and initial approval of its facility, policies and record-keeping. After a year, the program is reviewed again and can become certified. Facilitators are required to complete 20 hours training before leading their own sessions.
The state office has little contact with the providers until certification is up for renewal after three years. Little data is collected by the state – such as completion rates or recidivism – to examine whether batterers intervention programs are working.
The programs must submit annual evaluations, though not all do. The reports have no standard format and until 2017 programs were not required to provide client numbers. In 2018, the state began collecting more detailed numbers, but no time frame was specified for the data. In September, after Oklahoma Watch requested the reports and reporting policies, the office revised its rules again, requiring the reports to reflect the fiscal year.
As for analyzing the data for trends, Melissa Blanton, chief of victim services for the Attorney General’s office, said that’s unlikely.
“That would be great, but we just don’t have the resources to do that right now,” Blanton said.
40 Weeks to Go
Jones is about three months into his third chance at batterers intervention. Twelve weeks down, 40 to go.
He swears it will be different this time. He’s invested. He has a stable job. He missed a few Thursday night classes but always attended the popular makeup class on Fridays. He said he’s taking responsibility and learning how to avoid confrontation.
Forty weeks to go does mean 40 chances to slip up. But he isn’t worried.
“I’m pushing and applying myself this time,” Jones said. “They probably would give me a fourth try, though, if I needed it.”
Reach reporter Whitney Bryen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Domestic Violence Help
Statewide domestic violence hotline: 800-799-7233
YWCA, Oklahoma City: 800-522-7233
Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Tulsa: 918-743,5763
Women’s Resource Center, Norman: 405-701-5540