Judge John Leventhal has presided over the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court since its opening in June 1996. Leventhal talked with the Center for Court Innovation’s Carolyn Turgeon about his work.
How does your experience in the domestic violence court compare with your previous experience in a more traditional court?
In a regular court your main goal is to process cases. Get as many dispositions, trials, pleas as you can. I view our court as having a dual role: not only to protect the constitutional and procedural rights of the defendant, but also to watch out for the complainant’s safety while the case is pending and even after. So we took steps to do that. The two main goals of our court are to have complainant safety and accountability for any person who’s convicted. And while the case is pending and even after when possible, I want to watch them, and keep watching them.
How do you achieve these goals of complainant safety and defendant accountability?
First, we have intensive judicial supervision and monitoring. We bring the defendants back every three weeks whether something’s happening or not. In a regular court you arraign a defendant, set a motion schedule, file and argue the motions, set a hearing date, do the hearings, set a trial date, try the case and then, if the person should be convicted, the judge sentences the defendant. If the defendant is not convicted, then it’s over. In my court I bring the people back; I let them know I’m still watching them; I issue an order of protection. As part of bail I put someone in a batterers’ intervention program or a domestic violence accountability program, and I use that as a monitoring device. The defendant attends the program every week as a condition of bail, and then sees me every three weeks as well. So in a three-week period he’s seen the program three times and me once, and I get reports. I remind him when I give the order of protection that it’s my order of protection, not the complainant’s. If she invites him over for dinner, he’s going to have the most expensive dinner he’ll ever eat because he’ll be going to jail the next night. We also remind him the name of the case is the People of the State of New York versus Mr. Smith, not Mrs. Smith versus Mr. Smith.
When I first started the program I went to visit Quincy, Massachusetts, which didn’t have a domestic violence court but did have a dedicated prosecutorial team. They had one judge who handled the violation of probation in a misdemeanor court. Probation in Massachusetts is a heavy thing because misdemeanors are punishable there by up to two and a half years in jail. In New York it’s only one year. So they had a pretty heavy hammer if you violated. I saw people going to jail for two years for not paying child support, which is a condition of their order of protection, and while I was impressed with that I was also surprised to see such a large violation and probation calendar. I wanted to cut that down. How do we cut that down? We bring them back while they’re on probation, before they’re really violating in a bad way, to keep them on the right track.
Can you describe this process?
We started bringing back people every two or three months for the first year or year and a half. This proved to be very successful. For the first four years or five years that we were doing it, we had half the violation rate of the general probation population—which is incredible considering that you have targeted victims and people who know each other. Since then I think our violation rate has gone down even further.
Parole saw what a good job we were doing with probation and they wanted in on it. When I sentence someone to state prison time, parole puts down as a condition that within a month of the defendant’s release from jail they must come to the court to go over all of their conditions of parole, their curfew, the order of protection, any programs that they’re in, and so on. This reinforces the whole judicial monitoring component: I was the judge who arraigned them, I was the judge who took their plea or tried their case, and now I am the judge who is going over the conditions of their parole with them. When, years ago, Janet Reno gave a speech about the concept of reentry court, we were in negotiations already with parole to make this happen. So we really were the first to do that. When I say we, I am also including my partner and colleague the Hon. Matthew D’Emic who also heads the Brooklyn Mental Health Court.
There is also, finally, the partnership that we have with the usual suspects: police, parole, the New York State and New York City Departments of Correction, New York City Probation, the D.A.’s office, drug/ alcohol abuse treatment programs, and the defense bar. It’s very important to have the defense bar. It’s good to avoid any appearance of impropriety or favoritism, but we also have issues in common with defense, like mentally ill defendants and battered women defendants. So they’re very happy to have us in those types of cases. It’s most important that we have the defense bar on board even though they don’t embrace us like in drug treatment court, where the object is to divert certain defendants from incarceration.
Was getting the defense bar on board a challenge initially?
No, they wanted to come to the table. They were very cooperative but, having said that, they deal with the court in the context of an adversarial system, rather than a team approach that is used in drug treatment courts. A lot of times the prosecutors don’t agree with what I do either. We have to be fair and that was one of my greatest fears when we started this: that as the policies that we were implementing expanded into courts throughout the state, the defense bar would protest some of the things that we did and maybe some of our policies would have to be changed. So far everything has withstood scrutiny and we’ve been in business almost nine years.
What lessons have you learned, nine years later?
That you can’t be too confident. I think we’re always a heartbeat away from a tragedy, as much as we do. There’s probably always something we can do better, and we just have to keep trying. We should never think we know everything about domestic violence because you really can’t know all the variables, all the potential scenarios. You know my mother once said you can’t be too rich, too thin, or too smart. Well you can’t be too careful either, I would like to add.
We’ve also learned to anticipate problems before they become big problems. We learned, for instance, that when someone gets incarcerated in state prison, corrections might not necessarily know it is a domestic violence case, they might just see someone who has been convicted of assault. So for the last five years what we’ve been doing is attaching a copy of the order of protection with the commitment order. So now corrections knows that there’s an order of protection prohibiting the defendant from writing the person, calling the person, and living with the person when they get out. So these are things we all worked out in partnership meetings.
What more needs to be done to address the problem of domestic violence?
We have to do more in the civil sector in terms of better shelters, safety plans and alternatives, so women don’t have to leave their homes or make impossible decisions. I think a lot has to be done in terms of support, housing, employment advice, and other types of things to make it easier for women trying to leave abusive relationships.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to deal with?
The hardest part was in the aftermath of 9/11. There were a lot of budget retrenchments and we had to really exert whatever muscle we could. Even though the courts are committed and people are theoretically committed, it’s a matter of dollars and cents, where to put the money. So we have to make sure the money is still here and is a priority. We always have to fight. Domestic violence can’t just be the flavor or fad of the day. It can’t just be a big headline case and then disappear.
Could you talk about the court's planning—how did you get started?
To tell you the truth, we didn’t have the benefit of all the services the new courts have now. There was a fundamental framework put together by the Center for Court Innovation, but we were the first. We had no extra money. We had no computers. We had no resource coordinator the way every court that starts up now does. We were a pilot project, and then I implemented bringing the probationers back. Then we got a grant for a resource coordinator, a position that has now been institutionalized in the system. A lot of the things that courts are doing now are because of stuff that we developed as we went along. We had a good fundamental framework, and we had very productive and frequent partnership meetings. The first year or two we had them once a month; now we usually have them once every other month. Lastly, but equally important, we had excellent visionary leadership of [Chief] Judge [Judith] Kaye in the very conception of starting a dedicated Domestic Violence Court.