By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Taking a more local and evidence-based approach to treating domestic violence offenders, county officials announced Wednesday a new program aimed at keeping those cases out of the court system, while also addressing the causes of domestic violence.
The program will work much like ARD – accelerated rehabilitative disposition – used in drunken driving cases that allows offenders to be placed in a 16- to 24-week course that requires intensive behavioral modification. Participants will be admitted to the new program based on the recommendations of district judges, and if they complete the program the charges may be reduced or even dropped, according to Tom Amundsen, chairman of the Mercer County Prison Board.
“This really is a pretty intense program. It isn’t just about sitting there and earning a certificate at the end. There is role-playing and education and a lot of effort they have to put in. But if they don’t, then they know they are possibly looking at jail time,” Amundsen said.
Offenders will have to pay for each class, approximately $20, according to Mark Benedetto, the county’s administrator of corrections. Very shortly, he said, the program will be financially self-sustaining. But it’s the evidence-based training for his staff that he said he’s most excited about, because he feels it will coordinate in the long run with a data-collection program he has been working on.
For the better part of a year, Benedetto and his staff have been collecting data on inmates coming into and going out of the jail. Once all that information is complete and similar pieces of information have been added from state agencies, he hopes to have a much clearer idea of who commits crimes and why.
“And those trends and demographics will tell us in what direction to focus our efforts. The reason I’m so excited about the training that this domestic violence piece will bring is not only because we can hopefully decrease abuse, but also because the curriculum also includes modules dealing with anger management, life skills, drug and alcohol abuse. Our people will learn all that and be able to offer training based on what’s actually happening,” Benedetto said.
Offering a program specific for domestic violence offenders isn’t new, he said, because the county has been offering similar education of one sort or another for many years. The difference now, he said, is that this program will be taught locally, with proven curriculum and better evaluation of its success. He hopes to start in May.
“It’s not therapy. The focus is on training offenders to act with different behavior,” he said.
While offenders are largely male, he said there will be some women in the program as well. And because past practice has shown it is best to keep those two groups separate, he said, he is working on a way to develop a women’s program.
“You have to get to the heart of the problem and in a fairly immediate time frame,” he said.
Amundsen said it isn’t uncommon for victims to recant the story or refuse to press charges against an abuser. “And by having this taking place at the district justice level, it prevents some of that,” he said.
Commissioner John Lechner, who previously held a career in law enforcement, said he thinks the program is definitely a plus for the county.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’d respond to a call, and see someone who was beaten and abused and we try to work it out and a month later you’re called back to the same situation. The only way to change it is either to get the victim to leave or modify the behavior of the abuser. I’ll say I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.