A recent study released by Sam Houston State University shows Montgomery County’s domestic violence specialty court is among the most successful in the nation with an almost 90 percent conviction rate of family violence cases.
The study was a collaboration between Ling Ren, criminal justice professor and researcher at SHSU, and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Brett Ligon said the data is critical in determining how the court is performing and where improvements can be made.
“Domestic violence is a serious and pervasive problem in every Texas county,” Ligon said. “For various reasons, the investigation and prosecution of these cases are challenging. We are interested in finding any means whereby we can be more effective in protecting those who suffer abuse. Our cooperation with Dr. Ren and Sam Houston State University provided us with an honest, clear-eyed assessment of what progress we are making.”
According to data from Ligon’s office, in the last five years, the number of domestic violence cases filed has continued to increase. In 2018, the office filed 732. To date this year, 685 cases have been filed.
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Ren said there are more than 200 domestic violence specialty courts operating in the United States, but few have been systematically and scientifically evaluated.
The Montgomery County Domestic Violence Court was launched in 2011 by County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Claudia Laird and former Montgomery County Domestic Violence Division Chief Echo Hutson.
“I saw the way domestic violence cases were being handled and I thought it could be better,” Laird said.
Laird, who took the bench in 2011, said addressing domestic violence was part of her platform at that time. She said Ligon and his office have been supportive of the effort to address family violence.
“I’m not surprised it has done well,” Laird said.
The study, funded through a grant from the university, evaluated almost 6,000 cases between 2009 and 2018 including two years before the court was established.
“(Montgomery County) has incredibly determined and aggressive prosecution, all supported by statistical results,” Ren said of its 89 percent conviction rate in its domestic violence court. “This puts Montgomery County among the national high performers in handling assault family violence cases.”
Ren used data from the 2009 article “Prosecution and Conviction Rates for Intimate Partner Violence,” which compiled a list of the rate convictions per prosecution involving 268,159 prosecutions in various courts in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
According to the study, the average rate of convictions for family violence cases in non-specialized courts before 2007 per the data was 47.8 percent. However, Ren provided updated data by including more recent studies. The results show that the average rate of convictions for family violence cases in all courts was 71 percent in nine samples across multiple jurisdictions including counties in Kansas City, Mo., Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Montgomery County.
One area that makes the county’s domestic violence court successful is quick processing, the study notes. Ren said data showed the county’s fastest processing time was 38 days from case intake to conviction. A quick turnaround, she said, will have fewer victims recanting stories and lead to more convictions.
“I felt the prosecutors, judges and probation officers give a lot of attention to each case. It is only fair that we researchers do our due diligence, so that is how I made my decision,” Ren said. “I saw how much time and commitment is given by the DA’s office, the court judges and the probation department. I will say, their success was due to teamwork.”
Hutson, who help establish the domestic violence division with the DA's office, will assume the bench of County Court at Law No. 4 in January and will handle misdemeanor cases and a domestic violence docket. Hutson defeated Gary Miller in the March Republican Primary and will run unopposed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“This study helped us to see the difference between cases handled in this division compared to cases handled on regular court dockets, and the level of success is really undeniable,” Hutson said. “I think that everyone involved with this program is very gratified to see the long-term success, something you don’t always see or recognize in the day-to-day workings of a program like this.”
The study did note areas of needed improvement, including support for staffing problems, probation supervision, offender rehabilitation programs and victim services.
“To be successful requires multiple players,” Ren said. “Not only prosecutors and judges, but also victim advocates and service providers to ensure we can reduce recidivism rates and prevent these things from happening again. It is a cycle, so I think the judicial system bears some responsibility to break that violent cycle for the victims as well as for offenders.”
Hutson agrees and says once she is in office she plans to explore an expanded court program for domestic violence offenders with more personalized counseling and mental health treatment options, and expanded opportunities for substance abuse and rehabilitation.
“This would naturally come from partnering with organizations and programs in our area that we have not previously utilized, in order to provide expanded treatment to specifically address the dynamics and psychology of domestic violence offenders,” she said.
Additionally, a more consolidated and reliable approach to offering services to victims of domestic violence is needed. Hutson said victims who receive services for their trauma are more likely to leave the relationship.
“Victims are very often traumatized, overwhelmed and being pressured by the offender to return to the home whether coerced, threatened, or bribed and promised that their needs will be met,” Hutson said. “At the point, they become overwhelmed and feel they cannot navigate on their own, this is where we very often lose our victims and they return to the abuser.”