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State and local officials brace for changes in courts’ handling of domestic violence cases

Here’s what some state and local officials and institutions, involved in anti-domestic violence work will be paying attention to when the Pretrial Fairness Act, a portion of the Safe-T Act, goes into effect.

Illinois Supreme Court

Earlier this month the Illinois Supreme Court announced the formation of a committee on domestic violence and named Associate judge Jennifer Clifford as the chair. She presides over felony and misdemeanor cases in the Intimate Partner Domestic Violence Court in Rockford.

The committee she’s leading is made up of judges, anti-domestic violent groups, probation and social services administrators. They’re tasked with reviewing existing laws addressing domestic violence and will make recommendations to improve the court’s functioning in this area.

“So many of the people in my courtroom are people that grew up in homes with domestic violence,” Clifford said. She adds that the courtroom can be a place to help stop that cycle and give support families the support they need.

“I think with this committee, that's a new committee, we have a chance to look at what we're doing as a court system and how we can improve,” she said.

Also, they’ll be evaluating the implementation of the Safe-T Act. Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, a portion of the criminal justice reform legislation, a judge can no longer issue a money bond. Starting on January 1st, it will be up to prosecutors to petition a judge to request detention before sentencing.

Her courtroom works in coordination with Family Court to share information on cases and ensure that judge's orders don’t conflict with another. Judges and probation officers are trained in domestic violence in the coordinated system. She said the knowledge gained helps judges make better decisions and improves the support families receive.

“I’m able to, with my training and background and experience, be consistent in the message that I'm sending out to offenders, [and see that] people are treated fairly,” she said.

The 17th Judicial Circuit Court in Winnebago County established Domestic Violence Coordinated Courts in 2012. It receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office on Violence Against Women.

Judge Clifford said the formation of the statewide committee shows an acknowledgement from the Illinois Supreme Court of what she calls an epidemic of domestic violence throughout the state.

Other Illinois groups and officials recognize that reducing domestic violence cases in the community is a challenge, but one they must face.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said that “We are undoubtedly in a war with domestic violence...It's our number one most prevalent crime that we face. And it's tearing our families apart.”

He said domestic violence cases make up about 40% of all crime in DeKalb County. There are two attorneys assigned to handle domestic violence cases, but he said due to the high caseload the task is shared among all the staff. The office has one person to assist victims and witnesses with information and services.

“It's not like our population has grown by that (much),” he said. “Our population has shrunk, but that's [domestic violence cases] increased, and so can we use more resources 100%.”

Amato is among the state’s attorneys and sheriffs included in a lawsuit challenging the Safe-T Act’s constitutionality. When WNIJ spoke with Amato in November, he questioned the process legislators took to create the law. He also was concerned about how the Pretrial Fairness Act may affect domestic violence cases

He said he wants to protect victims at all costs but doesn’t want to see a scenario where defendants are overly detained.

“I think it would be abuse of power that we start detaining every misdemeanor domestic battery case, because that's not what's going on now," he said.

“That's taking a law and having the opposite outcome of what was intended by the law.”

Legislators passed an amendment to the Safe-T Act that broadens the criteria for determining whether a defendant is a danger to a victim or community that a prosecutor can use when they petition a judge for detention.

Rockford Mayor’s Office on Domestic and Community Violence Prevention

Jennifer Cacciapaglia, manager of the Rockford Mayor’s Office on Domestic and Community Violence Prevention, said she’ll be focused on understanding the evidence the prosecutors use to petition for detention in domestic violence cases.

“What we're watching for,” Cacciapaglia said, “is that there's — the judicial decisions will reflect an analysis and danger and understanding of the reality in a domestic violence situation and how that escalates.”

Her office supports survivors, and their families connect with housing, and counseling services, but she said demand far outpaces the resources available.

Leaders in the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault have expressed support for the Safe-T Act.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.