Over 800 cases have been placed in Lancaster County’s Domestic Violence Court since its launch a year ago, and officials say those cases are getting immediate attention leading to quicker accountability of the offender and enhanced protection of the victims.
Domestic Violence Court has accelerated nearly all elements of a case’s progression – specifically getting the case into the court process faster so victims are not re-victimized by remaining in or around the offender’s proximity.
Often times, a charge makes its way into Domestic Violence Court within a month of it being filed – many cases within two weeks.
At Domestic Violence Court sessions, held every other Thursday, an offender may plead guilty or request a preliminary hearing. Typically about 30 to 40 cases are scheduled per day.
Previously, the preliminary hearings in domestic-violence cases happened sporadically at district courts across the county. Under the new model, all domestic violence preliminary hearings are held centrally at the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.
“Domestic violence creates ripples of trauma and consequences which can ruin, and/or take, the lives of the victim as well as their children,” Lancaster County District Attorney Stedman said. “This court is designed so we can have a resolution much earlier in these important cases than before. We have, in essence, front-loaded the process to the benefit of everyone involved.”
Teams of specialized prosecutors, assistant public defenders, and court-appointed, stand-by attorneys are available to represent the Commonwealth and defendants.
About 500 cases have gone into Domestic Violence Court so far this year. For the past decade, the District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted between 500 and 600 domestic-violence cases per year. Due to stricter tracking and scheduling under this new model, that number is expected to climb to about 800 cases for 2018.
Through mid-August, 259 cases have been resolved via guilty plea, ARD disposition or dismissal. Most of these cases were resolved within approximately two months of the date of the offense. (The remaining cases are awaiting trial before the Court of Common Pleas.)
Even in the dismissal instances under the new format, a prosecutor has reviewed all evidence of the case and considered possible outcomes going forward.
Domestic-violence charges can be some of the most difficult to prosecute due to the parties involved becoming frustrated with the court process. The victims must navigate the changes in their home life while dealing with emotional or financial pressures from the alleged offender or the alleged offender’s family, and concerns about their personal safety. Unfortunately, victims sometimes stay under an alleged abuser’s influence and the criminal case stalls.
“The sooner we can deal with the issues related to domestic violence the sooner we can get the victim the protections and help he or she needs,” District Attorney Stedman said, “and the sooner the offender can get whatever sentence and/or treatment is appropriate.”
Led by Assistant District Attorney Susan Ellison, a group of specialized prosecutors familiar with the intricacies of these cases handle the caseload. Lancaster County President Judge Dennis Reinaker, Assistant Public Defender Patricia Spotts, Probation Supervisor Justin Chimics, Deputy Court Administrator Russell Glass, Assistant District Court Administrator Daniel Scarberry, and Sheriff Christopher Leppler have been instrumental in the operation of this court.
The County of Lancaster was awarded a grant through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency "Byrne JAG Program," which helped establish the court.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Devonshire)
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