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North Dakota's first domestic violence court to be in Grand Forks County

Grand Forks County will launch North Dakota's first domestic violence court this summer in an attempt to prevent repeat offenses and save taxpayers money.

Starting June 7, the courthouse in Grand Forks will begin issuing orders for offenders who commit domestic violence crimes to participate in post-conviction hearings that will assess sentencing compliance. It's part of a bill unanimously passed by the North Dakota Legislature this year that sets up the pilot program.

If successful, other counties could implement the courts, said Laura Vogel, a domestic violence court coordinator for the Community Violence Intervention Center. It's unknown how much money the program will save Grand Forks County, but a study is slated in two years to analyze the domestic violence court's effectiveness, Vogel said.

The program for intimate partner domestic violence crimes is meant to increase offender accountability, enhance victim safety, reduce recidivism and "improve the administration of justice in domestic violence cases," according to a handout created by Vogel. In addition to attending post-conviction hearings, offenders must attend orientation two weeks after sentencing or release and track progress with a handbook.

Currently, an offender must report back to court only if he violates the terms of his sentence. And when that happens, it could take weeks to file paperwork and schedule a hearing, said District Judge Jason McCarthy, who will oversee the program with Judge Jay Knudson when court hearings begin Aug. 15.

But domestic violence offenders have a high risk of reoffending, Vogel said. Nationwide, recidivism for such crimes is about 40 percent, though lower rates have been reported for areas with domestic violence courts.

Clay County in Moorhead, for example, had a recidivism rate of 12 percent after implementing its program in 2011, according to 2016 data from the county.

The program will streamline the process of court appearances and follow-ups to make sure offenders are getting the treatment they need, McCarthy said. Saving taxpayers money likely will come from offenders committing fewer acts of domestic violence and, in turn, having to serve less time in jail for repeat offenses, he said.

"We expect that this will increase judicial efficiency," he said of the program. "With this court, they will be expected to report to court right away, have their evaluation done and then come back repeatedly if they are not in compliance."

The first domestic violence court was implemented in 1995 by the state of New York with the hope of reducing recidivism, Vogel said. More have been implemented in other states, including Minnesota.

That state launched its program in 2008 in St. Cloud. Clay County, the second county to implement a domestic violence court in Minnesota, studied fiscal and criminal impacts for three years after launching its domestic violence program.

Crime rates related to domestic violence in the county increased 5 percent each year between 2012 and 2015, which was less than the predicted rate of 11 percent, according to the county's cost/benefit analysis of the program. The prediction was based on crime rate increases in previous years when the domestic violence court didn't exist.

After deducting the financial expenses for the program, officials estimated the court saved the county more than $340,000 a year, with the potential to save more than $4.1 million between 2016 and 2020, according to the analysis.

Grand Forks County will not have to cover the costs of the court since the U.S. Department of Justice awarded North Dakota a grant to pay for the program.

Domestic violence is about control and power, which can be cyclical if an offender doesn't receive proper treatment, Vogel and McCarthy said. The program is meant to help offenders recognize why they are committing domestic violence and show them ways to have healthier relationships, McCarthy said.

The court also can be an opportunity to check on offenders' wellbeing—asking how things are going at home or work, Vogel said.

"It's not totally a punitive system," she said. "It is there to hold the offenders accountable so they are able to get the treatment and help that they need so they don't commit violence in the future."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248