Several weeks ago, a violent offender with a history of partner assault repeatedly struck his wife and pushed her against a wall in front of their two sons. A week earlier, the same man hit his wife in the stomach and again in the face while they were driving around town.
The day after his arrest, another Missoula man – also with a history of domestic violence – chased his wife with a lit blow torch after she asked him to quit smoking meth. Prosecutors said the man was using the blow torch to light his pipe, then turned the weapon on his wife.
Such incidents of domestic violence are increasingly common in Missoula County, according to statistics compiled by the Montana Board of Crime Control.
In 2006, there were 399 partner/family member assaults reported to law enforcement in Missoula County. Six years later, there were 525.
And domestic violence-related crime has nearly doubled in that time. In 2006, officers responded to 485 reports of violent crime that had a domestic violence component. In 2012, that number soared to 796.
But the number of partner/family member assault charges filed by prosecutors in Missoula city and county courts has actually decreased during that same time period.
And the two counselors qualified to provide the mandatory treatment for offenders in Missoula, Ric McLeod and Brad Boylan, only have about 20 clients total enrolled in anger management programs.
McLeod runs the Men Advocating Non-violence program, or MAN, while Boylan runs Community Awareness in Violence Education, or CAVE.
“I don’t see treatment as the cure-all for something, but I believe there has to be a process after jail,” McLeod said.
A self-described “man’s man,” McLeod has been vocal in his criticism of what he calls a systematic failure of the judicial system to convict and track domestic violence offenders. He said offenders, especially misdemeanor offenders, routinely slip through cracks in the judicial system and don’t complete the counseling mandated by the court.
“The community has spoken very loud that they want the justice system to do something about violent crime,” McLeod said. “That’s what the community wants the criminal justice system to prioritize.”
But prosecutors are letting domestic abusers off the hook by pleading serious charges to lesser, misdemeanor offenses, he said.
When a partner/family member assault is repeatedly pleaded down to a lesser crime, it puts victims in a precarious position and lets offenders escape a potential felony conviction, McLeod said. Under state statute, the third partner/family member assault is a felony.
“It’s not simple assault — it’s a family. There is a continuing relationship between the perpetrator and the victim,” McLeod said. “That’s what sets it apart from other assaults. The victim lives with the perpetrator. That’s why we have a domestic violence law.”
According to the Montana Board of Crime Control, violent crime is on the rise – a factor that law enforcement attributes to the recession and the community’s slow economic recovery. When frustrations about money – or the lack thereof – run high, violence in the home is a real concern, explained Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks.
“I can’t tell you how many (partner/family member assaults) I’ve read where they were arguing about money and it escalated radically from there,” he said.
Missoula County prosecutors filed 132 partner/family member assault cases in 2011, but by 2013 there were only 94 cases on the docket.
That’s a 30 percent decrease in filings.
The city of Missoula’s numbers are similar. In 2011 and 2012, there were 241 and 250 cases, respectively. In 2013, the number of domestic violence cases filed by prosecutors decreased to 187.
The sharp decline could be attributed to more crimes being charged as a higher felony with stricter penalties and longer probationary period, Marks explained.
He doesn’t see the decrease as a problem.
A heightened awareness of domestic violence could be the reason the number of law enforcement reports of partner/family member assault are up, Marks said. He also argues that there’s not a direct correlation between law enforcement reports and cases filed in court.
Andrew Scott, chief prosecuting attorney for the city, agrees that the drop in cases filed isn’t necessarily a problem. Partner/family member assault convictions have the lowest conviction rate of any crime, he said.
He said the city of Missoula has a 34 percent conviction rate in partner/family member assault cases – and that’s higher than the national average of 28 percent.
Both city and county prosecutors point back to victim cooperation as the critical, missing element in many domestic violence cases.
Where there is no physical evidence of abuse, the victim’s testimony is vital to the success of the prosecution. And that can be challenging because of the nature of domestic violence. Many times, victims refuse to speak out against their abuser for various reasons – including economic dependence.
“It’s one of the frustrating parts of prosecuting domestic violence cases,” Marks said. “For a variety of reasons, she is not in a place to follow through.”
In such cases, prosecutors will often offer plea deals to the defendant, allowing the perpetrator to plea to a lesser misdemeanor, like disorderly conduct, in exchange for a chemical dependency evaluation, Marks explained. Other times, the cases are dismissed completely.
Neither city or county prosecutors could account for the falling number of convicted offenders enrolled in the CAVE and MAN programs.
Scott noted that some offenders are Native American and attend counseling sessions on the Flathead Reservation. Missoula Municipal Court, he said, routinely orders petitions to revoke to make those shrugging off their mandatory counseling enroll in the programs.
“But we don’t handhold them and walk them down there ourselves,” he said.
He said a grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control in 2011 has evolved to help the city court keep tabs on convicted abusers by ordering more petitions to revoke and applying a period of misdemeanor probation.
A study conducted that year by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants concluded that seven out of 10 people sentenced to anger management classes for domestic violence charges didn’t complete them.
The study has not been repeated, but Municipal Judge Kathleen Jenks calculates her court has a rate of 70 percent compliance in offenders.
With the misdemeanor probation program, she feels the court does a good job of tracking offenders.
Jenks also observed that the total number of partner/family member convictions is down – anecdotally at least.
“Partner/family member assaults do get plea bargained. They get plea bargained to assault, they get plea bargained to disorderly conduct. It happens,” Jenks said.
But she is hesitant to criticize city prosecutors, and explains that partner/family member assaults are some of the most challenging cases to prosecute for an array of reasons. It’s a sentiment that resonates across the judicial spectrum.
“Battered women are bad witnesses – they just are,” McLeod said. “They recant, they change their mind, they are afraid. (Prosecutors) can’t depend on battered women to follow through for a million reasons.”
“It’s a very hard crime to prosecute. I understand that,” he added.
Repeat offenders, many of whom victimize the same person over and over again, are a frustration to Missoula law enforcement, like Sheriff’s Detective Jason Johnson. Johnson heads domestic violence investigations for the department.
“It’s something that we are very interested in and we are doing something about it,” he said.
In November, Johnson started a rudimentary system that tracks partner/family assault offenders.
He keeps track of every crime report with a domestic violence component on an Excel spreadsheet, even if the offender was eventually convicted of a lesser offense. Johnson’s list notifies all law enforcement of the behavior by sending out domestic violence alerts to both the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
The system, Johnson explains, allows law enforcement to be better informed when responding to 9-1-1 calls.
In one such instance in January, a man assaulted his partner by strangling her and cutting her hand with a box cutter. Even though he was charged with a misdemeanor partner/family member assault – meaning the charge was his first or second partner/family member assault – law enforcement was alerted to his history of violence toward the victim through Johnson’s system.
The system told responding officers that last September, police responded after the defendant allegedly slapped the same victim, while in February 2013 both parties were arrested for assaulting each other. In January 2012, he allegedly held the victim down and strangled her while repeatedly threatening that she would never have children again, Johnson said.
That critical information is distributed to law enforcement with booking photos that help identify the perpetrators.
It’s a small step in alleviating a societal problem – but at least it’s a start, he said. Johnson hopes the program will eventually protect victims from their abusers by giving patrol officers a clearer picture of the relationship of the parties involved.
That new program, along with increased efforts from the city and county to keep in contact with victims could help to improve conviction rates and ultimately hold offenders accountable, Scott said.
But on a recent wintry afternoon – still bundled up from the wind howling outside the windows of the city attorney’s office – the prosecutor held a Montana Codes Annotated volume, irritably pointing to all the statutes for crimes against property that warrant stricter penalties than partner/family member assault. Even animal cruelty carries a stricter penalty than abusing your partner or child.
“Unfortunately, we are dealing with an entrenched problem in our culture that isn’t going away,” Scott said.
Then of course, there’s the victim-blaming culture that wonders why a woman stays in a violent relationship. The question society should ask, Scott said, is why does the perpetrator abuse?
“Until we get to that point, then there isn’t an answer to this problem,” he said.