Advocates concerned over bill that would make domestic violence treatment optional

Legislature • Critics say offenders may not get needed help if change is approved.
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Advocates against domestic violence worry that a single word change in a proposed Senate bill could have big impacts on treatment for offenders.

SB206, sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, largely addresses proposed changes to jail release processes for Utahns arrested for domestic violence.

But advocates take issue with a one-word change on the last line of the bill, which would make treatment or therapy optional for those convicted of domestic abuse.

Currently, Utah law reads that a judge "shall" order a defendant to complete treatment or therapy. The proposed bill would change the language to that a judge "may" order treatment.

"It's one tiny word," said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, "from 'shall' to 'may,' which means that treatment would become optional. It's a huge thing."

Oxborrow said Utah already lags behind the national standard in terms of treatment for abusers. She said there are an average of 26 weeks of mandated therapy nationwide. In Utah, most offenders receive a maximum of 16 weeks.

She fears that if SB206 passes, some offenders wouldn't get needed treatment that could help reduce the likelihood of future violence. She added that 39 percent of those who murder their domestic partners have had previous criminal histories.

"They're already falling through the gaps," Oxborrow said. "And we're about to make the statute weaker."

Derrik Tollefson, a professor at Utah State University who has specialized in domestic-violence treatment, said he, too, has concerns about the bill. He worries about judges making treatment decisions on cases in which they have not had adequate time to review the situation.

"Frankly, [the judges] have very limited contact with these cases," Tollefson said, "And I think given the potential danger associated with domestic-violence cases, that they deserve a longer look."

Tollefson said that instead of simply changing the wording of a law, it would be better to put a system in place in which offenders are required to be evaluated and then a judge can decide whether treatment is necessary.

"Domestic-violence offenders are a complex and potentially very dangerous population, some of them," he said. "And we really need to have people who have expertise in this to do evaluations and then give [recommendations]."

But Jennifer Valencia, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, said no research supports the notion that treatment or therapy reduces recidivism. She said some providers in Utah offer cheap therapy options with questionable treatments, like watching videos or going to a yoga class.

Valencia said blanket requirements for counseling also causes some defendants to pay for counseling in cases that don't make sense.

"If there's two roommates or two brothers [who are cohabitants], it's mandated if they are convicted of domestic violence," she said. "They have to provide the financial resources for that service, but it may make no sense."

Valencia agrees that offenders should be getting assessments before a judge requires therapy, but called the current treatment requirement "bad policy."

She added that judges have had training and education that will help them decide whether to order treatment.

SB206 also proposes small changes to jail release agreements, Valencia said. It would establish a process in which a person who is arrested for domestic violence would have to sign an agreement to get out of jail that promises that person would not have contact with the victim, among other restrictions. A court hearing then would be scheduled within 96 hours, Valencia said, at which prosecutors could either file charges, ask for an extension or the jail release agreement expires.

Valencia said current law does not require a court hearing within a window of time, and the proposed bill would change this to ensure due process.

The bill cleared the Senate on Friday and is now headed to the House.