Domestic violence study calls for changes by courts, police and prosecutors

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A study of how Nevada police and courts handle domestic violence has recommended changes by not only the courts but prosecutors and police to better protect victims.

The study, organized by the Nevada Supreme Court, the Attorney General's Office and the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, involved having court monitors sit through more than 1,100 domestic violence court hearings.

Elizabeth Stoffel of the Network Against Domestic Violence said recommendations range from improving courthouse safety for battered women to finding them more and better legal assistance.

Stoffel and Churchill County District Attorney Art Mallory told the legislative committee studying misdemeanors in Nevada law that too often, victims feel threatened even in the courthouse by their abusive spouse. He said that threat can be so subtle that prosecutors and court personnel don't see it.

Stoffel and Nancy Hart of the Attorney General's Office said court facilities should provide those women with a secure area to wait in separated from the potential danger of their abusers.

Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, asked how the counties would pay for those types of changes. Hart said the Attorney General's Office has some grant money that could be used for remodeling and other changes.

Hart said another problem is the large number of orders for temporary protection which aren't even served on the alleged abuser. That problem forces denial of extended protection orders in up to 40 percent of domestic violence cases.

She said law enforcement needs to give much higher priority to finding the abuser and serving him with the necessary papers.

Throughout the system, Stoffel said judges, prosecutors and police need more training so that they can improve handling of domestic violence cases.

The committee was formed to look for ways of improving how Nevada prosecutors and courts handle misdemeanor cases including not only domestic violence but things such as DUI cases.

The committee is looking into creating a more formalized structure for misdemeanors, dividing them into classes according to severity and setting appropriate punishment ranges. That system is already used in felonies which range from A-felonies such as murder carrying up to life or even death sentences down to E-felonies which carry no more than a four-year sentence and normally warrant probation in first offenses.

Judges and prosecutors say they aren't necessarily completely opposed to such things as mandatory minimums but that they need the flexibility to treat cases according to the specific circumstances.

"Mandatory sentences for a good portion of cases fits," said Carson Justice of the Peace Robey Willis. "But it doesn't fit for all. One size fits all legislation -- that's not the way life is."

He and Carson District Attorney Noel Waters said both prosecutors and judges need room for discretion.

"There needs to be an escape clause for places where it's not just," said Waters.

The example he used was two teenaged brothers fighting. The charge if police were called would be domestic violence carrying a mandatory two days in jail, $305 minimum fine and 48 hours of community service.

"If it's siblings pushing and shoving, that's just not just," said Waters.

Waters also cautioned that changes in the system have to be carefully weighed to make sure defendant rights aren't being cut back.

"We have to watch out for efforts to dilute the burden of proof," he said.

He and Willis also expressed concern about a few of the recommendations in the domestic violence study -- such as the one advocating more "ex-parte" hearings where just the victim tells her story to the judge.

Willis said ex-parte hearings are frowned on by appeals courts, because one side is not represented.

The committee is scheduled to review misdemeanor systems in a variety of states looking for ways to improve Nevada's handling of those cases.


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