When Pain Begins At HOME: Albany's Domestic Violence Court Grew Out Of Concern That System Was Failing Victims (A Must Read)
At 10:28, Jorge Camargo stepped up to the bench in Judge William Carter's court.
Camargo was charged with third-degree assault; he'd been arrested after he allegedly slapped his wife. An argument had begun when she asked about text messages from another woman on his phone. She told police he started yelling, then pulled her hair and scratched her face, leaving a 2-inch mark on her right cheek.
That day, a fairly typical Wednesday in May, Carter's court heard the cases of 40 alleged offenders, all charged with committing crimes against their intimate partners. Since Albany's domestic violence court was established in 2005 to serve this city of just under 100,000, Carter has heard 6,284 domestic violence cases.
Camargo, clad in jeans and an Aeropostale T-shirt, stood slackly before Carter, his shoulders relaxed. He explained that he had struck his wife's face accidentally as he attempted to take the phone from her.
An accident, Carter replied, was not illegal. "If you did slap her, you need to admit it," he said, a stern but still soft-spoken presence in the courtroom. Carter was elected a City Court judge in 2003. Before that, he worked as an assistant district attorney for Albany County, a capital defender for the state Capital Defender Office, an assistant attorney general for the state and a state trooper. When he was asked to head up the city's new domestic violence court back in 2005, domestic violence wasn't a particular personal interest. But from where he sat on the City Court bench, he saw a definite need.
Eventually, Camargo made an admission: "I shoved her and grabbed her phone from her," he said.
Camargo pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, and a protective order was issued barring him from any illegal contact with his wife.
"Domestic violence court is really all about accountability," Carter said that day after court.
The concept of domestic violence courts began to catch on in the 1990s. At that time, the court system was trending toward the development of "problem-solving courts," such as drug courts, with separate dockets and specially trained judges. Simultaneously, domestic violence was becoming viewed increasingly as a matter for the courts rather than an issue between husband and wife.
The country now has more than 200 criminal domestic violence courts, with more than 30 percent of them in New York state.
New York's first domestic violence court, the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court, opened in 1996. Since then, more than 60 courts have opened in New York, including in Troy, Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs. Albany's court would follow almost a decade after Brooklyn's court first opened, established in hopes of clamping down on a key issue surfacing in local domestic violence cases.
"Orders of protection weren't being issued or enforced," Carter recalled. In other words, no one was holding abusers accountable.
"There was a whole change in New York state with the criminalization of domestic violence, and this was part of it," said Lisa Frisch, executive director of The Legal Project, an arm of the
Capital District Women's Bar Association. The Legal Project, along with other community stakeholders, such as Equinox, an Albany nonprofit that provides services for domestic violence victims, among other things, began the local movement to establish a domestic violence court in Albany. They eventually tapped Carter, then a City Court criminal judge, to head the court. The court opened with the help of a $473,000 federal grant. Its existence was briefly threatened in 2007 when that funding was not renewed. Recently, the court was awarded a nearly $400,000 grant by the
U.S. Office of Violence Against Women to study ways the court can become more effective.
At the time the court was being planned, Frisch worked for the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. Domestic violence cases were getting lost in the regular City Court calendar.
"When you're in the system, you just see these cases go nowhere," she said of domestic violence cases before the court was established. "Something had to be done."
By having a specialized court and judge to focus only on domestic violence cases, so the logic goes, the court can be more in tune with issues particular to domestic violence and thus render justice more effectively. Domestic violence cases are often complicated simply by virtue of being matters that revolve around interpersonal relationships and human emotions. Frequently they also are hindered by a lack of concrete facts or documented evidence, making them difficult to prove.
Later that morning in Carter's court, and at least a dozen defendants later, the assistant public defender requested whether his client might complete an anger management program rather than the batterers' intervention programs Carter often prescribes.
"We don't do anger management," he replied.
Later, he explained: "If it was an anger issue, he would act out with other people, like his co-workers ... it is an issue of dominance and control. The behavior is directed only at his intimate partner."
Carter has received significant training, both formal and informal, in dealing with domestic violence since the court first opened. It's an education that never ends — in the fall, he is attending a workshop in Atlanta hosted by the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence. Specific assistant district attorneys and public defenders also practice in his court, ensuring that the lawyers he works with are well-versed in domestic violence.
Another key component of domestic violence courts is an emphasis on providing resources for victims of domestic violence. In Albany's domestic violence court, advocates from Equinox work in partnership with the court. In court, there are also representatives from the Albany Police Department's domestic violence unit and Albany County Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center. The court is a collaborative effort between law enforcement and the advocacy community, which often play a critical role by offering victim support and domestic violence expertise.
Evidence suggests that domestic violence courts do a better job holding abusers accountable. A study of New York's domestic violence courts released by the Center for Court Innovation in February found that domestic violence courts reduced average case processing time to 197 days from 260, significantly increased conviction rates among male defendants and reduced rearrest rates among convicted offenders. The study also found that domestic violence courts were more likely to issue sentences against abusers that included incarceration.
Carter's court handles mainly misdemeanor cases, but he is also an acting state County Court judge, so he can preside over some felony cases. Most of his defendants have been charged with crimes such as criminal contempt, assault or harassment; sometimes, the charges are things like criminal obstruction of breathing (or choking). On Wednesdays, he hears new cases, Thursdays are devoted to compliance hearings. Other days are typically spent in trial, conference or pretrial hearings.
At 11:44 a.m., shortly before court broke for lunch, Lawrence Herring took his turn before Carter.
Herring was already serving time in the Albany County jail when he violated an existing no-contact order by phoning the protected party. Herring pleaded to a misdemeanor criminal contempt charge for the offense. He was sentenced to one additional year in jail.
The prosecution conveyed to Carter that the protected party had requested to alter the order so as to allow some contact instead of none. Carter denied the request.
Herring was distraught. He had violated the first order only a few days after it had been issued.
"I can't even talk to her?" he asked the judge. The answer was no. A no-contact order was printed and given to Herring to sign — meaning no calls, texts, visits or any other form of communication.
Kristen V. Brown
email@example.com • 518-454-5035 • @kristenvbrown