Are judges using basic, fundamental practices in domestic violence courtrooms? Simple practices that improve case outcomes for victims? Only 53% of the time, finds our new study.  Many simple, no-cost practices, that are very important for victim safety, just aren’t being used by judges. Like a surgeon washing their hands prior to surgery, these practices should be used 100% of the time. No exceptions.

Judges have dramatically improved their use of some practices in Montgomery County Maryland. For instance far more judges tell abusers to turn in their guns in 2018 than they did in 2011.  In addition, in 2011 only 37% of judges asked victims who wanted to drop their cases if they had been coerced. Today, judges talk to 65% of victims about whether anyone has intimidated them into dropping their request for a protective order.

It seems a pretty basic process to tell every abuser that violating a protective order can result in going to jail. But judges warned only 33% of abusers in 2011, and seven years later, only 45% are creating a deterrent by warning abusers they could end up in jail if they make contact with the victim.

The only way to know if judges are using fundamental practices that protect victims is for community members to be in courtrooms, collecting information in hundreds of cases. That information gives us the ability to look at the District Court’s use of important practices overall.  We can also study how each judge uses each practice. We found that two judges never encouraged a single victim dropping their case to come back to court if they felt unsafe. Two other judges encouraged over 70% of victims to return if their intimate partner put them in danger.

About 20 Court Watch volunteers and staff met recently with Administrative Judge Patricia Mitchell and three other judges to talk about our report and discuss ideas for better protecting victims while being completely unbiased in cases.  One judge noted that “no law or statute requires us to use ‘best practices.’  That’s true. But when judges learn about simple, no-cost practices that don’t take a lot of the judge’s time and can improve victim safety, we think it’s not too much to ask that every judge incorporate these practices into the routine way they handle cases.

Communities and organizations need to be vocal about the importance of our courts using simple victim-friendly practices. Together, we can change the norms at the courthouse, and protect our neighbors who are experiencing violence in their own homes.