Domestic Violence in Pinellas County–Believe, Speak, Act

Dora Komninos

Dora Komninos

The Zonta Club of Pinellas County is joining the roster of Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force (DVTF) advocates to fight for domestic violence victims in our county.

The DVTF is chaired by Assistant State Attorney Dora Komninos, who is running to become a County Court Judge.  Dora came to our Club meeting in June.

Donna Lancaster

Donna Lancaster

Doris Reeves-Lipscomb

Doris Reeves-Lipscomb

On behalf of our Zonta Club of Pinellas County, Donna Lancaster and I attended the bi-monthly meeting of the Task Force on July 19 to learn more about its focus, activities, and our domestic violence law enforcement and response structure.

I did not know, for instance, how many public and private agencies exist to receive complaints, investigate, charge batterers, and decide to prosecute and/or require batterers to undergo counseling to help them address their power and control issues.

Discussion in the meeting and my followup online research shaped the below graphic for me of how a domestic violence complaint might be addressed in our county.  I don’t promise that it shows everything; it’s a work in progress.

DV_Pinellas_County_615px_2016-08-03_1709

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At least 30 to 40 people attended the Task Force meeting on July 19 with many of them representing the above agencies.

The Committee reports on Primary Prevention, Fatality Review, Advocacy, and Statistics interested me, too.  In particular, Ruth Whitney shocked me with the Stats report.

When the State Attorney formed the misdemeanor Domestic Violence Unit in 1996, prosecutions were at their highest–75%.  In 2015, the rate had fallen to 31%.

Even for domestic violence cases involving strangulation between January and September 2015, ONLY 11.7% (23 cases )were prosecuted for strangulation, and 15% (30 cases) were prosecuted at a lesser charge.  These low prosecution rates are very troubling because according to the report we were given,

…strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence. Studies by Glass, et al, 2008, have shown that victims of strangulation are 800% more likely to become victims of homicide.

There was no discussion about why the prosecution rate has fallen as reported.  Very worrisome; we need to understand why.

Perhaps in partial response to the Stats Committee report, the Task Force offered the following recommendations that will be shared with State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

1. The Domestic Violence Task Force (DVTF) recommends a combined felony and misdemeanor domestic violence division with experienced attorneys who are well-educated about domestic violence. (Our State Attorney’s office has a “specialized misdemeanor DV division but no specialized felony DV division. … Jurisdictions with specialized domestic violence prosecution programs generally boast higher rates.)

2. The DVTF  recommends that the felony assistant state attorney (ASA) who performs the initial investigation be the one assigned after charges are filed to increase victim cooperation and prosecution. (Reasoning: to build a stronger relationship between prosecutor and victim and bolster victim cooperation)

3. The DVTF recommends that assistant state attorneys (ASAs) consistently follow a pro-prosecution policy and an evidence-based prosecution policy. (Currently, if a victim does not want to cooperate, the assistant state attorney will drop the case. … if evidence shows a crime occurred, the ASD should go ahead and prosecute. … National Institute of Justice’s 2009 report: “…120 studies from over 170 mostly urban jurisdictions in 44 states and the District of Columbia … of intimate-partner prosecutions … found the average arrest prosecution rate was 63.8%.)

4. The DVTF recommends that assistant state attorneys take into consideration a lesser charge or certifying it down to a misdemeanor charge if a felony domestic violence charge is not provable on all cases. (FL statute of battery … may be easier to prove.)

5. The DVTF recommends more detailed, updated, and ongoing training in regards to domestic violence issues for attorneys and support staff.  (…The training needs to be provided to all new attorneys and support staff. … the misdemeanor domestic violence division usually consists of new attorneys who have less than one year experience as a prosecutor and who are rotated in and out within less than a year.)

6. The DVTF recommends an investigator or ASA consistently listen to jail calls on all felony domestic violence cases with an emphasis on the most critical time which is the first 48 hours after arrest.

We LIKE these recommendations and will use this blog and our social media Twitter accounts to educate others about them.

We will take an in-depth look at programs to assist and support DV victims and survivors.

Please indicate your desire to be placed on our mail list HERE as new posts are published (at most 2-3x a month).

And thanks for everything you do to make our community a kinder, gentler place for domestic violence victims and survivors. We look forward to working with you to keep improving systems serving these folks.