A new study shows that Rhode Island courts dismissed more than 60 percent of misdemeanor domestic violence charges. It's a statistic that's worrisome for many advocates and the courts alike.
Elvia Sanchez is now a college graduate with dreams of continuing her education, but she's also a domestic violence survivor.
"It escalated to the point where he said he was going to kill me and my son," she said. "He even picked out a place to bury our bodies."
Luckily for Sanchez someone called the police on her boyfriend. He was eventually tried and sent to prison, but it took months to get there.
"My experience with the justice system was a very lengthy one and it was very stressful," she said. "It was very scary. It was very confusing."
There were times she wanted to walk away. So she's not shocked a study by the nonprofit group Justice Assistance shows from December 2011 to March 2013, Rhode Island courts dismissed two out of three misdemeanor domestic violence cases.
"If you look at it from the entire criminal justice system we've really let the victims down," Jonathan Houston of Justice Assistance said.
Houston's group did the study after seeing a decline in court referrals to put abusers through counseling. It breaks down dismissal rates by each district court, cities and towns. Their research showed Providence and Warwick dismissed 70 percent of their cases.
"I was extremely concerned," Deb DeBare with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence said.
Now the RICADV is using the information to facilitate change. It's teaming up with the Attorney General's office to highlight training opportunities for local prosecutors. The office only tries felony domestic charges, but has a stake in lower court results.
"If those cases aren't adjudicated and they are dismissed then we are not getting those prior convictions to make that third offense a felony," Stacey Veroni, chief of the Criminal Division at the Rhode Island attorney general's office, said.
The coalition is also teaming up with the city of Warwick.
"It's a tremendous challenge that everybody needs to take a step back and say why can't we get these dismissal rates down," Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney said.
Warwick Police did its own report. Although it found discrepancies in the Justice Assistance study it still found the city's dismissing nearly 70 percent of domestic violence charges.
The coalition hopes the department will focus more on gathering relevant evidence to move cases forward.
Both city solicitors and police say a major challenge is obviously the family dynamic. Many victims are reluctant to go forward out of fear of violence or losing a loved one.
"I'm a firm believer that families that go through this are in need of help," Assistant City Solicitor Kerry Rafanelli said.
Rafanelli says even with dismissals he tries to make sure the accused undergoes counseling for anger management or drug and substance abuse.
Despite these steps, the police chief and Rafanelli may see a setback this summer. State budget cuts will reduce their access to court advocates. The advocates work directly with victims, but starting in June will only work four days a week instead of five.
An added challenge to an already big problem, but the coalition and Sanchez hope focusing on across the board training can improve Rhode Island's dismissal rate.
"There's this saying in Spanish ... which means 'It's better to prevent something from happening than having to deal with the repercussions afterward,'" Sanchez said.
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