PHILADELPHIA (Oct. 26, 2015) – In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams today shared the success of the city’s Domestic Violence Diversion Court (DV Court) which has now been aiding Philadelphians for the last 20 months. To date, the program has helped approximately 225 participants successfully complete the program.
The DV Court’s success is due to its holistic offender focused approach and a unique partnership between the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO), First Judicial District of Philadelphia and domestic violence prevention professionals.
“A domestic violence program had been in existence for about a decade in Philadelphia, but advocates, staff and I wanted it to do more when it came to monitoring, effective case management and addressing the underlying issues that cause an offender’s acts of domestic violence,” said Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams. “So, in 2011, all of the partners came together to rebuild the program to make it accountable and offender focused. In 2014, after much research and preparation, the program was launched.”
The DV Court is overseen by Assistant District Attorney Marian Braccia in the DAO and President Judge Marsha Neifield of the Philadelphia Municipal Court for consistency and accountability. The Defender Association of Philadelphia also has an attorney dedicated to staffing the DV Court and representing its clients; which is an effort to monitor participants more closely and consistently to ensure a more personalized approach to their treatment supervision needs. Eligible candidates are first time domestic violence offenders charged with a misdemeanor where no weapon was used and no serious injury or sexual abuse was inflected.
The treatment component is delivered by licensed therapists who are specially trained to target the problem of domestic abuse and reduce the chances that the participant will re-offend by addressing the underlying causes of his or her violence. Some examples include drug abuse, mental illness and their prior experiences of abuse. About 230 offenders have already gone through the program. Those who successfully complete the terms of their program and incur no new arrests one year after they graduate, can file to have their record expunged.
“Domestic violence has a devastating impact on hundreds of families in Philadelphia every year. With its focus on diversion and counseling as an alternative to incarceration, Domestic Violence Court is an innovative and proactive initiative to keep families together with the necessary counseling and support services, while reducing our prison population,” added President Judge Marsha Neifield. “With our attention to both the defendants and the survivors involved with domestic violence, we have taken a holistic approach to tackling this concern by treating the root causes of this problem, including teaching the skills necessary to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Our court coordinator as well as the relationships with PHMC and all social service agencies have been invaluable resources, which have contributed to the success of the program.”
Another purpose behind the DV Court is to increase victim safety by eliminating violence in intimate and familial relationships. The DV Court holds offenders accountable for their behavior by stipulating treatments that introduce them to new skills as the program closely monitors their behavior in order to avoid a criminal conviction.
“From the viewpoint of a treatment program, we’re delighted to partner with the DV Court. The court and everyone involved are certainly concerned with enforcing the law, but we are also very concerned about what is going in the lives of the people we are working with; especially when it comes to safety and treatment,” said Tony Lapp, LCSW, Associate Director of Menergy. “As a community we want people to be able to ask for help when they need it, but sometimes the impetus for change is a crisis. If a person behaves badly, but is genuinely remorseful and committed to acting better in the future, DV Court can be an opportunity to do something more than just having a person simply suffer through an incident’s consequences.”
In addition to Menergy, Inc., who handles the majority of DV Court’s cases for intimate partner offenders, the Public Health Management Corporation, Philadelphia Department of Behavioral and Intellectual Disabilities Services, Men’s Resource Center and Joseph J. Peters Institute also provide services.
Domestic violence impacts families of every race, geography and economic status. In the U.S., one in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. Two to four million women are physically abused each year. In Philadelphia, the police department receives more than 100,000 reports of domestic violence each year and about 2,000 people go to Philadelphia’s emergency rooms because of a domestic violence assault annually.
The DAO’s Pre-Trial Division, which houses the Domestic Violence Diversion Court, is made up of several units that include the Charging Unit, Diversion Courts Unit, Pre-Trial Unit and Private Criminal Complaints Unit. Together, these units form a continuum that holds non-violent offenders accountable for their actions while providing them with help to prevent future crime through supervision and treatment services. Annually the office diverts about 40 percent of its misdemeanor cases to significantly reduce the court’s yearly caseload.