KC court program seeing success as it works with domestic violence offenders

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City has one of the biggest domestic violence problems in America.

The city ranks 7th for domestic violence homicides nationwide, according to the Violence Policy Center.

But a new approach is finding some success, thanks to a dedicated team of people working through one municipal court.

"My mother and father fought all the time," said Larry, who didn't want his last name used. "I mean, it was like a normal thing."

Larry grew up with domestic violence, hated it, but still found himself caught in the same cycle.

"I knew that it wasn't right, and I done it anyway," he said. "Everybody knows right from wrong growing up, and I chose to do it, and I dealt with the consequences for it."

Those consequences landed him before Judge Courtney Wachal in Kansas City Municipal Court, one of the most progressive in the country for domestic violence.

His choices were jail or agree to go on the compliance docket.

"The compliance docket is rooted in evidence-based information that shows the closer an offender is supervised and the more they are held accountable, the more likely they are to be successful on probation," Wachal said.

It's offered to some domestic violence offenders as a term of a plea agreement.

Wachal was appointed in 2015 to oversee the compliance docket as it started. It emerged out of research from the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that conducts research on what works to reduce crime and uses that information to implement change.

The compliance docket is funded by the Justice Department, and it seems to work because it gets specific.

"We try to do everything we can to make sure that if somebody wants to be successful on probation, the tools are there for them to do that," Wachal said.

When someone pleads guilty to the compliance docket, they get a full evaluation then treatment and classes that meet their individual needs.

That could mean things like treatment for substance abuse, mental health or childhood trauma; classes for batterer's intervention, life skills, getting employment or a GED.

"Pretty much if there is a need that the offender either shows us that they have by nature of a violation or asks us for help with, we will try to help them," Wachal said.

The research shows that it makes the offenders more productive and makes the victims and community safer.

"We see a pride built into their being successful on the docket, an openness when they start participating in the batterer's intervention classes, a willingness to share, to learn, a willingness to monitor peer to peer, holding others accountable," Wachal said.

And if they're not willing, they go to jail.

A civil attorney and victim advocates work to help the victims get what they need. Carla West, an advocate through Newhouse Shelter, said sometimes success is as simple as obeying a protection order.

"Like one lady said that he totally leaves her alone now, and she's very happy with the compliance docket," West said. "She's so glad that she doesn't have to worry about that now, and she can go on with her life."

And sometimes it means they go on to have better marriages and relationships thanks to the new tools they gain.

"Violence is not the key to whatever problem you or your mate are having," Larry said. "There's a way you can talk it out, work it out. Somehow it can be worked out without fighting."

Larry graduated from the compliance docket last month.

"Change can come, but you have to want to do it yourself," he said. "And that's what it took, what it takes for me or anyone else. You got to know that you want to change."

And that there are consequences for whatever changes you don't make.

"You either take the little tools you learnt, and you'll either take them out there with you or you'll forget about them," Larry said. "And some of us still got em with us, and I didn't throw them out. I still got the tools with me."

It's working for others, too.

Rearrest rates have dropped over the last few years since the compliance docket started. It's working so well, the KC court has been recognized nationally.

"The Department of Justice identified 13 courts that were doing a good job of holding offenders accountable and keeping victims safe. We are one of them," Wachal said. "We are the only municipal court selected out of those 13."

They've now been awarded a grant that they'll use to teach other courts the same approach while they keep working to find better solutions.

"Nobody has solved domestic violence, but we are all working to do the best that we can and trying to learn as much as we can," Wachal said. "And we will continue to strive to make improvements."

So what's next? As a mentor court, they'll travel to other cities on grant funding to teach this approach to other courts.

They're also about to start a new domestic violence drug court docket. KC will be only the second court in the county behind Miami to start using this new approach, treating domestic violence offenders with a serious substance abuse problem. That begins Monday.

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