Domestic Violence

Too many violent offenders fail to complete programs that can calm their anger

Alexander Franklin is grateful police arrested him for domestic violence three years ago.

"Looking at the way my life was going, I probably wouldn't be here today," he said.

The Fresno man had punched, kicked, grabbed and thrown his then-girlfriend through walls, and by the time he was arrested in 2015 for strangling her twice in one night, the slightest comment set him off. "I was just like a ticking time bomb," he said. "Every second of the day … I could be happy one second and just super upset in another second."

Franklin, 24, was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and enroll in a batterers intervention program. Under California law, domestic violence offenders must pay for and complete the one-year batterers intervention program that teaches them about gender roles, the nature of violence, the dynamics of power and control and how violence affects children and others.

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Alexander Franklin, 24, is a domestic violence offender who completed the mandatory 52-week offenders program. Photographed Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The program taught him how to control his anger and healthy ways to express emotions, Franklin said. And it encouraged him to evaluate his life. "Just admitting my faults to other people who were in the same position as me helped a lot," he said.

David Gottlieb, a Fresno Superior Court judge who presided over one of the county's two domestic violence courts for five years, said the program works. Chances are slim an offender who has completed a batterers intervention program would return to court, he said.

But too many offenders fail to complete programs and are re-arrested. A Fresno Police Department review of 630 cases in May 2017 that were sent to the domestic violence unit found 53 percent of the defendants were re-offenders. Drugs, alcohol and poverty — the same factors that many believe contribute to increases in cases of severe domestic abuse in Fresno — hinder completion of treatment programs.

Fresno County does not track completion rates for batterers intervention programs, but a 2008 report by the Judicial Council of California looked at a sample of more than 1,000 men enrolled in programs in five counties (Fresno County was not included). The report found completion rates of 50 percent in Santa Clara, 52 percent in San Joaquin, 56 percent in Los Angeles, 62 percent in Riverside and 65 percent in Solano.

Offenders who were enrolled in programs were least likely to be re-arrested for domestic violence if they were fully employed, more educated, did not have signs of drug and alcohol abuse, were older and did not have long criminal histories, the report said.

Alcohol and methamphetamine abuse are pervasive in Fresno County. Gottlieb, whose court typically handled up to 60 domestic violence cases a day, said 80 to 90 percent of the offenders who came before his court had abused alcohol, drugs or had mental health issues. He ordered them to enroll in batterers intervention programs, but "they can't complete the program if they're not sober," he said.

Offenders who are substance abusers also are ordered to enroll in alcohol and drug treatment programs, but there are not enough of those in Fresno. Many offenders wait in jail for weeks for beds to be available in residential treatment centers, Gottlieb said. "I can say we need more treatment programs available, without a doubt."

Franklin went to Alcoholics Anonymous while he was in the intervention program. The two treatment programs worked well together, he said. He had abused his girlfriend when he was drinking, but also when he was sober. He does not blame substance abuse for his violence. "It was never the cause," he said.

Cost can be a deterrent

Fresno County probation officers said substance abuse programs are essential for many offenders, but some can be costly. And cost also can be a deterrent to attendance at batterers intervention programs, they said.

Mayra Marcelo, co-owner of Family & Behavior Intervention Program, said programs like hers are offered on a sliding-fee scale, but a typical fee for the two-hour weekly class would be $25. "It is a barrier for some of the clients when they don't have employment," she said.

The Judicial Council of California report on batterers intervention programs said offenders who were fully employed had a 60 percent completion rate, compared to 41 percent for those who were unemployed.

Kirk Haynes, a Fresno County probation division director, said the 52-week requirement is too lax for some offenders and too rigid for others. The length of time an offender has to attend "should be based on a true assessment of what his needs are," he said.

Another concern is that first-time misdemeanor offenders can wind up in classes with offenders who have multiple felony arrests for domestic violence, to the detriment of both groups, he said. "The program is too cookie-cutter."

Probation officers said a better approach is to offer offenders a life transitions program in addition to an intervention program that includes classes on anger management, parenting, and individual and family counseling. The county has state funds to cover attendance costs for 75 offenders this year. Currently, 48 are enrolled. It's too soon to know how successful the program will be, but statistics are being gathered on completion and re-offending rates.

Sending domestic abusers to the batterers intervention programs does not guarantee they will not re-offend, the probation officers said.

Many violate protective orders to stay away from their victims. In about 50 percent of the cases, the offender has purposely violated the court order, said Martin Sanchez, probation services manager.

In the other cases, the victim has continued to see the offender. The cycle of violence typically includes a "honeymoon" period when the abuser repents and convinces the victim to resume the relationship, but eventually the abuse resumes. Gottlieb said he took into consideration the circumstances when protective orders were violated, but offenders were looking at jail or prison sentences if there were new acts of violence.

Gottlieb said re-offenders who are receptive to batterers intervention programs can rehabilitate themselves and stop abusing partners. "They say the programs have saved their lives or changed their lives."

Franklin credits the batterers intervention program at Marjaree Mason Center for turning his life around, but it took time for him to accept the help. "It has a lot to do with the individual characteristics of batterers," he said. "We think we know it all."

At his probation officer's suggestion, Franklin has been speaking at domestic violence counselor training classes. He has had to recount some shameful events, but it's worth it: "I don't want to forget what I did because I would hate to be in that situation again or make someone feel that way again or hurt someone again."

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter
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