Special Reports

Domestic abusers' supervision scrutinized

It was the kind of gruesome killing that haunts police officers for the rest of their lives.

A Cambodian immigrant named Sovanny Heng shot his estranged wife, Soung Pheach, in the head with a military-style rifle as friends and relatives fled. After killing Pheach, the mother of his three small children, Heng shot and killed Pheach's mother and then himself.

The 1997 shootings ended years of abuse by Heng. He was already under a Tacoma Municipal Court order to stay out of trouble after police arrested him for threatening to kill his wife.

Now, with Tacoma's handling of domestic violence cases under scrutiny like never before, critics are reaching back to Pheach's death to illustrate what they see as a critical gap in the city's criminal justice system. The city has no face-to-face probation program, a gap that was introduced in 1995 when the city dropped it to save money.

Most other local courts in Washington have probation officers who frequently see high-risk abusers every one or two weeks. In Tacoma, offenders generally go before a judge every 90 days.

City and county leaders, in response to Tacoma Police Chief David Brame's fatal shooting of his wife and himself in April, are working on a plan to improve services for victims of domestic violence.

One element of the five-point plan under development is to set up a coordinated system for tracking abusers after they get out of jail. But it might not happen without voter approval of a proposed sales tax increase targeting public safety.

Like other local courts around the state, Tacoma Municipal Court judges put batterers and alleged batterers on probation and order them to stay out of trouble. Abusers often are ordered to undergo domestic violence treatment.

In 2002, the court oversaw 560 offenders charged with such crimes.

But unlike most other jurisdictions, city judges don't delegate supervision to probation officers.

Instead, the judges basically do it themselves under a system known as "bench monitoring."

City judges order offenders to return to court to account for themselves, usually accompanied by their lawyers. Judge David Ladenburg, who oversees the municipal court's domestic violence cases, said he typically orders 90-day reviews to give offenders more time to enroll in treatment.

At review hearings, offenders must show proof of compliance with court orders. Between hearings, court clerks check criminal justice databases to see if offenders have been arrested again or whether treatment providers submit court-ordered reports.

"Our system is very efficient. We receive a lot of compliments from the legal community," Ladenburg said.

"Our (clerical) staff does an excellent job of keeping the court informed so if people fail to meet sentencing requirements they're brought quickly in to answer to the court."

Judge Elizabeth Verhey, Tacoma Municipal Court's presiding judge, rejected two requests by The News Tribune to observe the court clerks at work, citing privacy rules.

Even so, she insisted that the bench monitoring system works.

"We have defendants held accountable sometimes in less than 30 days for not doing what they're supposed to be doing," she said.

That's not fast enough for critics such as Steve Pepping, a counselor who runs a state-approved domestic violence treatment program in Tacoma and is chairman of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence.

When Pepping finds out an offender has violated a court order, he immediately reports it to Tacoma Municipal Court clerks, but it still takes between three weeks and a month to get a hearing, he said.

In Pierce County District Court, on the other hand, such violations may result in a hearing within a day or two (see related story, page A15).

Neither the city nor the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which tracks caseload data, could provide statistics to show how often the Tacoma judges see abusers.

Most other municipal and district courts with jurisdiction over misdemeanors in Washington employ probation officers who meet with domestic violence offenders, keep in touch with treatment providers, check databases and immediately report violations to the courts.

Ideally, probation officers should meet weekly face to face with domestic violence offenders during the first three months of supervision. That recommendation is part of a recently developed model drafted by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, using U.S. Department of Justice money.

"You won't find a (probation) department in the state that does that," said Ladenburg, who discounted the importance of frequent in-person meetings with offenders after sentencing.

Actually, probation officers do meet weekly - and occasionally even more frequently - with batterers in some Washington cities and counties.

That type of intensive supervision of certain high-risk offenders takes place regularly in Kitsap and Whatcom counties and in Seattle and Olympia, according to a News Tribune survey of probation officers and supervisors around the state.

Additionally, probation officers in several small communities in rural parts of the state said they occasionally schedule weekly meetings with domestic violence offenders they consider dangerous. This happens in Jefferson, Kittitas, Skamania, Okanogan, Pend Oreille and Grant counties.

In Pierce, King, Clark and Yakima counties, probation officers meet biweekly with high-risk domestic violence offenders.

Elsewhere in Washington, the typical schedule is monthly face-to-fact contact.

Spokane's system is a cross between bench monitoring and traditional probation. Spokane judges decide whether probation officers should meet regularly with batterers, or whether court clerks can keep tabs on offenders. But every offender meets at least once with a probation officer.

Benton County uses a bench monitoring system similar to Tacoma's.

Problem-solving team's findings

In a 1999 report, a city problem-solving team identified the lack of Tacoma Municipal Court probation as a concern. The team's charge was to determine why only half of the city's domestic violence victims testified in court, prompting frequent case dismissals.

The court's bench monitoring system contributed in part to the problem, the report said, because "too much time elapses between offender sentencing and the review hearing without any supervision."

Team member Anne Crowley explained the report's conclusions to then-City Manager Ray Corpuz and a group of city department heads.

"We provided our final report, and that was the last we ever heard of it," said Crowley, the assistant city attorney who prosecutes domestic violence cases in municipal court.

Judie Fortier, Tacoma's women's rights coordinator, said the team was caught off guard by the indifferent response. "Hey, it's very simple. Nothing was done," Fortier said.

The report came four years after the Tacoma Municipal Court stopped contracting with Pierce County for probation services due to rising costs, said Judge Verhey. Since then, cost-cutting pressures have increased.

"It's a budget crisis citywide. You only have so much money, so you do the best you can with what you've got," Verhey said.

Costs had escalated for several years before the city allowed the probation contract to expire, records show.

Between 1990 and 1994, the annual number of cases referred to probation officers by municipal court judges increased from 1,146 to 2,322. During the same period, the annual contract cost increased from $110,937 to $172,062.

At the time, municipal court probation referrals included not only domestic violence offenders, but also people charged with drunken driving and other misdemeanors.

Improvements, but at a cost

At this point, there's no data that compares the success of probation versus bench monitoring for offenders accused of domestic violence, experts said.

But Anne Ganley, a Seattle psychologist and nationally recognized expert on domestic violence treatment, said offenders are more likely to comply with court-ordered treatment if they meet frequently and in person with a court-designated supervisor.

"There is a great big, huge deficiency in Tacoma," said Dwight Correll, a retired Tacoma detective who investigated the Pheach slaying and for several years handled other domestic violence cases.

Crowley, the assistant city attorney, compared the Tacoma court's bench monitoring system to an ambulance that races in after accidents but does nothing to prevent them from happening.

As it is, the system allows offenders to ignore many court orders until their next court appearance, often 90 days after sentencing.

"The whole idea behind this is we want to keep people headed in the right direction," Crowley said. "It's been my experience that if a defendant feels he can get away with not complying, he's going to try to get away with not complying."

Tacoma officials are re-examining the way the city responds to domestic violence in light of the Brame scandal. Municipal court probation is one of several problem areas already identified, said Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, the judge's sister-in-law.

Last month, Councilwoman Ladenburg was among a group of elected officials who unveiled a five-part plan to improve service to victims. Most of the attention so far has been on a proposal to create a one-stop spot where victims could go to see law enforcement officers, lawyers, victim advocates and court staff members. But the plan also proposes a coordinated system for tracking batterers after they get out of jail.

Backers, including Councilwoman Ladenburg's husband, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, hope voters will approve a 0.3 percentage point increase in the sales tax to pay for these and other public safety improvements. If approved, the measure would give most of Pierce County the highest sales tax in the state, at 9.1 percent.

Verhey, the city's presiding judge, maintains that Tacoma's bench monitoring system works. But she said the court would welcome the opportunity to hire a probation officer.

"We're always open to getting more resources to be able to do things better," she said.

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756