Our number one goal is trying to change our focus from just working on this individual, to saying, how does this impact the other people in the community?
— Jim Henderson, Consultant with the Battered Women's Justice Project
Domestic violence cases present challenges to probation departments. Supervising and monitoring offenders requires an understanding not only of the dynamics of domestic violence but the crime’s impact on the entire community. For this episode of In Practice, Rob Wolf speaks with James Henderson, a former probation officer and a consultant with the Battered Women's Justice Project, and Aeron Muckala, a corrections agent for the Minnesota Department of Corrections in Bemidji, Minnesota. They discuss how probation departments are meeting the challenges of these difficult and often high-risk cases.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
ROB WOLF: Welcome to In Practice, a podcast for the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Rob Wolf. This is a new show, the Center's second, and it's focus is the work of practitioners, people working on the ground to make things better for everyone who finds themselves touched by the justice system. In Practice will home in on the nuts and bolts, taking a deep dive into a specific program or initiative focusing on the practical challenges and rewards of introducing a reform or a new idea, and getting the story from the people on the front lines who are leading by example. And don't forget that we still have our original podcast, New Thinking, which has been going strong since 2008, where you'll hear Matt Watkins interview thought leaders, academics, journalists, advocates, elected officials, and the like about current trends in the justice sphere.
Today, the subject of In Practice is probation, and specifically probation for people charged with domestic violence. I have two guests with me on the line to explore and discuss some unique strategies developed for working with this population. Aeron Muckala is a corrections agent for the Minnesota Department of Corrections in Bemidji, Minnesota, where he is responsible for monitoring the compliance of participants with cases in the Beltrami County Domestic Violence Court. Aeron also co facilitates batterer's intervention groups, and works closely with community partners to think through the community's response to domestic violence. Also with me is Jim Henderson. He is a trainer with the Probation Project at the Battered Women's Justice Project. And I want to thank you both for coming on the podcast.
JIM HENDERSON: Thank you.
AERON MUCKALA: Yes. Thank you for having me.
WOLF: I'm sure a lot of listeners already know the answer to this, but for those who don't understand all the moving parts of the criminal justice system, Jim, can you simply define probation, just generic, regular probation, and then maybe we can go into what the specialized domestic violence probation looks like?
HENDERSON: Sure. When an individual is charged with a crime, sometimes they want that individual supervised. So there's kind of three different levels. First is pretrial where that's before a person has been convicted. So you've been arrested, you've been charged. I mean, a court may want to monitor or supervise that individual until they have their court hearing and the proceedings. From there, you can either get probation or parole. Probation would usually come with somebody being charged with a misdemeanor or a felony who did not get prison. And so you may do a temporary stint in jail, and then be released back out into community and be monitored by probation agent who would make sure that you comply with any conditions of the court, rather that be counseling classes, restitution payments, etc.
And finally we have parole, which would really be the release of people back into the community after long-term incarceration, usually involving a stint in prison. All three sometimes have the same individual doing it in states like Wyoming. In other states we separate those people out completely where you'll have a whole pre-trial department that only does pre-trial, a separate probation department, and you might even split that in half to have a felony probation and misdemeanor, you may have a separate parole board and parole association.
WOLF: When we talk about specialized domestic violence probation, how is that different from probation for more general population?
HENDERSON: I think your probation officer dealing with the general population, you're going to have a large amount of drunk driving cases, you're going to have economic crime. You may have violence against other people, and then you have intimate partner violence. What we found is that intimate partner violence takes a lot more time to do it correctly. We have victims who may not want to participate, and that we need to try to figure out how our recommendations from the court impact that person who was victimized and the children. There's more collateral damages to the decisions that we make.
So when they've allowed people to specialize in that, we're able to have more training in victim service information, more training on trauma informed interviewing, better relationships with our community to figure out how should batterer's intervention work with this guy? How do we mix in and deal with substance abuse issues and mental health issues? But really, the primary focus of saying everything we're doing with this individual offender is being measured by the outcome of violence and fear that will be bestowed against any person he has victimized in the past or future partner he or she may get involved with in the future.
WOLF: Well, it sounds like the focus is, whereas in traditional probation it's very much on the offender, here it's much broader. You're connecting with the victim, you're connecting with the community, you're connecting with a lot of service providers.
HENDERSON: Our number one goal is trying to change our focus from just working on this individual, to saying, how does this impact the other people in the community? And then work towards promoting offender behavior change.
WOLF: So Aeron, maybe you can tell us what domestic violence probation looks like in Beltrami County. And I thought maybe the best way to start is to tell us a little bit about the County itself. I understand, for instance, that it has a large Native American population.
MUCKALA: That's true. Relative to the size of the rest of the population, Beltrami County has about 47,000 people in it. Population wise, it's smaller than a lot of cities, but we're spread out over a large area. About 73% of the population in Beltrami is white, and about 21 or 22% is Native American, American Indian. In addition to the Native American population that live in the County, we also have the White Earth Reservation to the west of us and the Leech Lake Reservation to the east of us. We also have a lot of connection with those two reservations.
WOLF: The cases come from the reservation or they have their own separate justice system?
MUCKALA: The reservations have their own courts. However, if someone comes to Beltrami County and has an offense, then it's charged in our courts.
WOLF: Tell me a little bit about what the probation looks like in the domestic violence court?
MUCKALA: When a defendant is arrested, they go to arraignments first and that's where they see the judge for the first time. Most intimate partner domestic violence cases are then placed on pretrial supervision. And their most misdemeanor cases, they'll be released on their own recognizance or they'll have a minimal bail that they'll have to post to be released. So their first thing that they have to do when they're released is come over to us and give us their contact information, and we'll discuss their conditions of release with them to make sure they understand. Most people, when they've gone to jail possibly for the first time in their life, that's a pretty shocking experience to them. Then to go to court and they get this long list of conditions that they have to follow, they may not really be processing that at that point.
So it's important for us when they come here, that they do understand what each of those things mean and that they know when their next court date is. But especially, we have domestic abuse no contact orders, and in Minnesota violations of those can be charged as a new offense. So it's very important that they understand that. Those offenses are also enhanceable. A defendant that has a DANCO violation and then gets another, violates the DANCO again, that can be charged at a higher level with a longer jail term, possibly, or even prison time.
WOLF: And just to be clear, DANCO stands for ... That's the order of protection?
MUCKALA: Domestic abuse no-contact order, or a DANCO, is issued by the judge generally at the request of the County attorney.
WOLF: What is different about what you do working with these clients or these participants, these litigants who've been charged with domestic violence? I know that you have Batterer's Intervention Program, for instance, that you jointly facilitate. Could you outline some of the things that make your work unique in the world of probation?
MUCKALA: Yes. The primary reason that we started assisting or co-facilitating in the Batterer's Intervention Program was that we didn't have one locally. So it was really out of necessity. Duluth, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, they had came over and did a training. So it was us and some of the mental health providers in our community, we all trained together. And we also had Department of Corrections grants at that time that helped pay for that training and then helped us establish the programs here. So at that point, to make it economically feasible for our mental health providers, they could only provide one facilitator. So we agreed to provide a co-facilitator from our agency to help reduce their costs.
WOLF: Jim, let me ask you, is that unusual that the probation department would also co-facilitate the batterer intervention group? Because I know batterer intervention programs are pretty standard response and monitoring tool for domestic violence cases. But usually I believe, and correct me if I'm wrong, they're usually run by partner agencies and not by, for instance, probation itself.
HENDERSON: Traditionally around the country you're correct. Usually batterer's intervention providers are somebody in the mental health arena, rather be part of Catholic Social Services or some other agency that's working on with clients. But there has been courts where they have me, just like they found, where it needed to be addressed. And Duluth, they had probation officers also co-leading agencies. And some parts of the country don't have the funds, they don't have the resources. And probation has had to take on that role.
WOLF: So it sounds like it originated out of necessity, necessity being the mother of invention, that you co-lead the batterer intervention group. But have you found, and do you believe there are any advantages to actually co-leading the group?
MUCKALA: As a probation officer, the advantages for me are that the referral process to the group is highly simplified because I can just plug defendants into the different groups. It's very simple. The other thing is that we know when they're in group. We have our own systems for documenting attendance at groups. And there's no middleman for us because we're right there. So that's good. It also helps us build better relationships with our clients in the group, and also to have a better understanding of the clients that my partner is working with. Because the clients aren't assigned to the group based on who their probation officer is, it's really more around their schedule. There's two of us here that have domestic violence case loads, and so the clientele get mixed in, but we get a good sense of who each other's clients are.
WOLF: And are there special considerations for Native American defendants? Do they participate in your program or do they participate in tribally run batterer's intervention programs?
MUCKALA: That is really up to the individual client, and it's primarily based on where they live. Like I mentioned, the Leech Lake and the White Earth Reservations, they cover a significant area. So making it to Bemidji for our groups would be pretty unreasonable for a lot of them just because they'd have to drive hour each way. For those clients that live on the reservation, they have the option to attend those groups versus having to drive to Bemidji to do the group. We do have good working relationships with those groups as far as getting reporting on attendance and participation by the clients, and that's something that's come over time too. But right now everything seems to be working pretty well.
WOLF: When you do have Native defendants in your program, are there issues around cultural sensitivity, or cultural awareness, or competency that come up?
MUCKALA: I would say the largest issue there is for us as facilitators to educate ourselves more on ... The communities here are Ojibwe, but each reservation, and even on the reservation there are subgroups, so there are differences. I'm certainly not aware of all of them, but I've spent time over the last few years reading and talking with people, attending conferences where these kinds of things are addressed. And I think that that's probably the biggest or the most important aspect of working with Native American clients is just taking it upon yourself to get that education.
WOLF: Distances must be very large in your County. How does that affect your work?
MUCKALA: Transportation tends to be our largest barrier because people live in remote areas. So we take it upon ourselves to go out to the reservations to meet with people so that they don't have to drive so much. It's just such a big barrier for us.
HENDERSON: One of the things I liked about Officer Muckala made reference to is just the importance of trying to understand the diversity in our community, whatever that is. In his community it happens to be the Native American population. In other parts of the country we may have people from Somalia or Samoa, and really trying to get invited into that culture, find out what the strengths are in that culture, what do they value and how do you use that to promote change with that population is important. And so it was really exciting to hear him talk about reading, going out to the reservation, working with that population.
WOLF: Can you give an example of that, Jim? If you know something about the strength of a culture, how would you use that in your work?
HENDERSON: I need to go find a community leaders in that group and ask, what do I need to be aware of when I go into the home? How do I politely reject food if they offer me food? What are the policies of my office? All those things are important that we don't always think about. And if we really want to have engagement with this family in a way that's positive for everyone, we need to understand what we're walking into, who we're working with and what are the strengths and barriers.
WOLF: Aeron, let me ask you, you mentioned there's both pre and post trial monitoring. Just as Jim mentioned, probation can have three different areas that are considered potentially called probation. Are there differences between the monitoring you do pretrial and post-trial?
MUCKALA: Yes. The primary difference would be that post sentence we have their conditions of probation that they have to follow through with, so it becomes more intensive. Our time spent together increases. One of the other advantages of us being in the VIP groups is that we do get to have more face time with these guys. And that feeds into even our probation role, because I can sit down and say, Hey, we talked about this in group last week. Have you thought about that since? What's come to mind? What challenges have you had with that? So we get to be more hands-on once it comes to post sentence. And then of course we have review hearings. So each defendant is assigned to a judge, and post sentence they will initially be going for review hearings at least once a month until they show that they can be compliant with all of their conditions.
WOLF: Let me ask about the relationship between the courts and probation, because obviously you have to work closely with the court, the judge, the staff. What do you think are good ways or effective ways to promote collaboration and communication about domestic violence cases in particular? Jim, maybe you could tell me what information should be shared and how should it be shared?
HENDERSON: First off, we write a pre-sentence report for the court, and each court has different pressures from the defense bar, from the community. So when we write a report, we're able to incorporate what other national organizations say about a practice, it empowers our report. So if I'm able to say the American Judge's Association says dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court recommends this. The American Probation and Parole Association recommends this. I'm able to send a message to the court, to the defense team and to the prosecutor that this is not just a recommendation from probation, but it's really a well-researched, well thought out recommendation that is highly supported by a variety of national organizations. A good thing that I like what I'm hearing, listen to Officer Muckala talk, is that he's able to try to make his program more synergistic.
If there's a court violation, he's able to say, we gave this particular offender these types of opportunities. He had this type of training, this type of feedback, but he chose to do this instead. It's easier for my judge to hold an individual accountable. If they know that probation has offered them the tools to break through or go around any roadblocks that they have. By having that close relationship with that client, he should be able theoretically to do a much better job of writing a convincing report to the court if a violation needs to happen, or if he's not asking for a sanction for a violation that did happen. So on occasion, maybe a client did technically violate the conditions of probation, but given the circumstances, and what the client was going through, and what he worked on and the resources at hand, probation may be asking for a different level of lenience.
WOLF: It sounds like sharing information quickly is also an important ingredient of a good relationship between probation and courts.
HENDERSON: Normally the specialty courts will do that. You may have judicial reviews where you're having that person come before the court every so often, and then based on how well they're doing, you may stretch those out. But where the actual judge is reviewing the case, probation's giving them updates, batterers intervention, all the other community partners, the substance abuse community, whatever's involved with that client, probation will package that up in a nice little report, hand that to the judge so the judge can have his or her hand right in that offender's case.
WOLF: And what about joint training? Is that something that courts and probation and maybe other agencies do? Is that a recommended practice?
HENDERSON: Actually, the Office of Violence Against Women strongly promotes collaboration. The training program that we talked about, and Duluth that came did the training, was kind of the starting of this coordinated community response. So how does the community send a consistent message that domestic violence is not acceptable, that it's not going to be allowed in this community? How do we support families to make the changes that they need to do? And how do we do a better job of holding families accountable when that needs to happen? If we can all be on the same page. If I tell you you have a problem, and your cousin tells you you have a problem, and your mother tells you have a problem, you might start to think, well, maybe I do.
If only half of us tell you you have the problem and the other half says that half was lying, you can choose to believe whatever you want to believe and whatever you think is the easiest route. So really being on the same page is so important. And having an understanding of what the police can and cannot do, what victim services can and cannot do, what the prosecutor defense bar makes a huge difference in my role and expectations that other people have on us as officers of the court.
WOLF: Aeron, in Beltrami County, how do you work together with the domestic violence court?
MUCKALA: Each week we have one judge doing their domestic violence court review hearings. So prior to that, we're going over the docket and seeing which of our clients are going to be on, at which time we prepare a report. On a format, everybody who's on our coordinated community response team has had input on and is focused around what the judges want to see about each client when they come in for their review. They've got things like what that client's specific conditions of probation are, what assessments they've done, are they following through on the services recommended by those assessments. And then they've specifically got VIP group attendance, and participation and what topics were discussed in those groups. And then we put in our recommendations for when their next review hearing would be. Or if we're seeing some other issue come up, that's something that we can also address at that time, or at least let the judge know that this is a concern and we may need to address this in the future. But that's kind of the primary way that we get our information to the judges.
WOLF: Are there some other ways, and either one of you could answer this, that probation and courts can hold domestic violence offenders accountable and deter future abusive behavior?
HENDERSON: The resources out there suggest that when clients are given a clear, precise methods that domestic violence would not be tolerated, and if they engage in this behavior or violate their order, that there will be sanctions given there, that they actually, the recidivism rate is 50% that of courts that are more lenient. The same things with the following of order of protections. Orders of protections work in jurisdictions where the offender thinks the judge is very clear and will absolutely hold them accountable if they violate that order. They don't work hardly at all in courts where they feel the judge really didn't even want to give them the order and the judge wasn't going to do anything about it. So when courts have a specialty court, the message to the client is, oh, they think this is important enough to have a specialty court, specially trained agents, this is a very charismatic group, very manipulative group, but a well-trained officer's going to be aware of that and not get pulled in.
Having increased monitoring or longer duration of classes also sends a message that, hey, we're worried about you. We're concerned about your behavior. And we're going to watch you and we're going to give you lots of opportunities to address the underlying issues and change. Having prosecutors who are there at court, who are willing to go forward with a violation hearing or increased sanctions if the client violates. All of those, just send a message to a victim that the community's behind her or him, and that we're here to support you and try to work together to keep you safe. It sends a message to the offender, hey, we're watching you and you will be held to account if you mess up. We're going to give you all the tools and try to help you address any underlying issues. But at the end of the day, the violence has to stop.
And then it also sends a message to the community, because remember, every victim who sits in court who doesn't feel supported goes out and tells their friends and family. Every victim who sits in court and feels supported and thanks the court is doing things that's helpful for them and their family are also talking to the community.
WOLF: And Aeron, what's the Domestic Violence Court Handbook?
MUCKALA: Our Domestic Violence Court Handbook is something that we give out to each defendant after they're sentenced. And what this is, is a little book where they're required to write down what their conditions of probation are. They have to put in who is the protected party in any no-contact orders. They have to say whether or not there is a domestic abuse no contact order in place or an order for protection. They have to bring it to class each time they go to BIP class and they have to have it signed off on. They have to write their next court hearings in it. If they have to do say chemical dependency treatment, or individual therapy, or some other program, they're also required to keep track of that in the handbook.
So it's almost like them having to carry around the court with them in their pocket. And they're responsible to bring this to the judge each time they have a review hearing so that the judge knows, okay, I just flipped to page three and I can see how many classes of BIP you've attended. And now I'm going to look at the probation officer's report, and okay, yep, they're matching up so that's good. Now let's talk about what you did in class. So it's really just, they have their accountability with them 24 hours a day while they're going through domestic violence court.
WOLF: Sounds like it's a smart tool and you find it effective.
MUCKALA: It really has been pretty effective. The guys who get through the 24 weeks and they get to their last review hearing, it's usually pretty well worn.
WOLF: This is hard work. I mean, you guys are working with a challenging population and must hear a lot of difficult and sad stories. I just wonder, maybe we could close the conversation with you both talking a little bit about the challenges for you personally working with these cases, as well as I'm sure there are rewards?
MUCKALA: I can say for myself, there are challenges, especially living in a small community. When I work with a client, it's not just somebody who I'm never going to see again. These are people that I will run into at the park, or at the store, or when I'm at the bait shop before I go fishing. That's just the nature of living in a small community. That can be difficult. But on the reward side, when you do have a victim who comes in, and is able to feel like they've been listened to, and like they understand what's been going on, and like they can talk to me if they have a concern, that's rewarding for me.
WOLF: And Jim, is there anything you want to add about the challenges and the rewards?
HENDERSON: Yeah. I would think the challenges are that the client's lives are so complex, and they're issues that wrap around them you'd never know, rather it be mental health issues, financial issues. And these roadblocks that come up for some clients almost seem insurmountable and having the resource to address all those needs can be difficult. Rather, the person is homeless, lost a job and is unable to get a new job right now, has health problems, all of these things have to be addressed by probation. And we have to always be doing a balancing act between, where do we hold a person accountable for not complying and where do we say, okay, given the reality of this person's life, they're not able to do the things that the court would like them to do in the way that we have traditionally wanted things done. So that's, I think the biggest challenge, and making sure that I'm not colluding with a client and that all of our recommendations are really looking at the total outcome of our primary goal of making families safer.
The thing that's most rewarding, I think it's saying just what Officer Muckala said. When you go and do a victim interview and a person realizes they're not crazy, and that you talk about power, and control, and different things that are happening and a light bulb just goes off, they're like, oh my gosh, you totally know my husband, and you haven't even met their husband yet, it's quite rewarding because it allows a person that freedom to know they're not alone, that they're not crazy, that they didn't deserve what happened to them. And then when you can create change in families where you have someone come back six months after their husbands went off probation, and they're writing a letter to the judge saying how much their life has changed because of their involvement with the court is rewarding.
WOLF: Well, thank you both so much for coming on In Practice, and thank you for the good and important work you're doing.
HENDERSON: Thank you.
MUCKALA: Thank you.
WOLF: I've been talking to Aeron Muckala, a corrections agent for the Minnesota Department of Corrections in Bemidji, Minnesota, and Jim Henderson of the Battered Women's Justice Project. You can subscribe to In Practice on iTunes and other podcasting platforms. And please check out New Thinking, the Center for Court Innovation's podcast, hosted by Matt Watkins. I'm Rob Wolf. You can find out much more about the work we do here at the Center for Court Innovation at courtinnovation.org, dot O-R-G. Our music is by Michael Aaron of quivernyc.com. And this show is produced by the Center's Communications Team. That would be Emma Dayton, Samiha Meah, Bill Harkins, Matt Watkins, and me. Thank you so much for listening.