Spokane city and county prosecutors are joining forces for the first time to battle domestic violence.
They hope to create a better-prepared, more effective team focused on taking batterers to court and getting them into treatment.
For years, city and county officials have talked about coordinating their attack on domestic violence. But a state law passed this year pushed them beyond discussion into an active partnership.
Starting Jan. 1, the law requires Washington cities to prosecute abusers when the beatings occur inside city limits. County prosecutors have been handling those cases.
Rather than having different law enforcement agencies fighting the same problem independently, Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser convinced city officials to forge an alliance.
Sweetser and City Attorney James Sloane are planning a joint budget and looking for a building to house the six-attorney prosecution team.
The change was hailed Wednesday by advocates for victims of domestic violence, who have long been critical of the criminal justice system’s failure to protect women and children from in-home abuse.
“This effort goes a long way in sending a message of zero tolerance in this community for domestic violence,” said Carolyn Morrison, director of the YWCA’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence program.
But directors of both the city’s and county’s public defender offices sent a letter this week to Sweetser, criticizing the team approach’s “inflexible” emphasis on increased prosecution.
The letter, signed by Kathy Knox and Don Westerman, strongly objects to a planned requirement that accused batterers admit their guilt and waive their right to a trial in order to qualify for treatment.
All sides, however, agree Spokane County needs to respond to a record number of domestic violence cases.
About 3,500 cases were reported last year in the county, but less than 20 percent were prosecuted. The chief reason: Few women are willing to testify against their abusive husbands or boyfriends. Many victims fear revenge; some still love their abusers.
Officials hope the coordinated approach leads to more convictions and fewer repeat offenses.
The incentive for people to plead guilty is avoiding jail time and getting the charge - typically fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor - erased from their record following successful completion of treatment.
Consistent sentencing is another goal of the domestic violence team.
“By having a group of specialized people managing these cases all the time, you won’t have the problem of a guy getting one sentence one time in one court, then something totally different another time in another courtroom,” said Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor John Love.
Sweetser said the team approach has been successful elsewhere, including King County and San Diego.
The unit will have two city prosecutors and four county prosecutors. The city has assigned two experienced attorneys to those slots, while Sweetser has picked deputy prosecutors who are currently handling domestic violence and other abuse cases.
Hoping to have the prosecutors work side by side in a single office, Sweetser has asked county commissioners for permission to use part of an empty building about a block from the courthouse. No decision has been made.
Sweetser has also proposed that one or two District Court judges be assigned full-time to domestic violence cases.
“We’re looking at this issue carefully and as fast as we can,” said Judge Christine Cary.
Besides the added domestic violence caseload, the new state law requires the city prosecutor’s office to handle other misdemeanor cases formerly managed by the county, such as vandalism.
Sloane said the added burden may cost the city $2 million a year.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE TEAM Spokane’s new domestic violence prosecution team features four county and two city prosecutors. There were 3,500 domestic violence cases reported in the county last year. Less than 20 percent went to court.