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Clay plans domestic violence court -- Would be second of its kind in Minnesota

As the one crime where victims always know their attackers and often share lives, domestic violence can pose unique issues.

"It isn't so simple as you have an offense, you have a conviction and then treatment starts," Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said.

Victims can be financially or emotionally linked to the assailant and may have children together, among other entanglements.

"It creates a whole set of dynamics that are very difficult," said Clay County District Court Judge Michael Kirk. "It's not like a normal crime."

That's why Clay County is working on establishing a court designed to deal exclusively with domestic violence, a program that would be only the second of its kind in Minnesota. It would pair intense supervision of offenders with a focus on the welfare of the victims and their family.

"We're looking to try to break the cycle of violence," Melton said.

A federal grant awarded last fall is expected to pay for a year of planning the court and two years of its operation, said Kirk, who will preside over the court.

It wouldn't be the area's first specialized diversionary court. Clay County and Cass County, across the river, both have drug courts centered on intense testing and rehabilitation.

But Melton said domestic crimes are a serious enough problem to warrant a special approach. He said Clay County's domestic-related cases - including domestic assaults and associated crimes such as interfering with a 911 call or violating a protection order - have trended upward in the past three years.

In 2008, there were 67 felonies or gross misdemeanors and 68 misdemeanors. That jumped to 89 and 107, respectively, in 2009. Last year, there were 93 felony or gross misdemeanors as well as 98 misdemeanors.

That's high compared to other Minnesota counties, Kirk said. "The need is perhaps a little stronger here," the judge said.

The group planning the court met for the first time last week, a committee that includes representatives of probation and parole, the county attorney's office, Kirk, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, the county's victim advocacy and public defense offices and others.

"By having the input of all of them, we can design a better court," said Lisa Wertman, hired in December as domestic violence docket coordinator.

The requirements of the $263,000 grant mandate the court be in operation by at least Jan. 1, but it could be ready to start as early as this fall, Kirk said.

One of the top tasks in planning the court is how to select which cases it will take. The state's only other domestic violence court, run in St. Cloud by Stearns County, limits its caseload to domestic-related felonies where the defendant has a prior felony record.

Kirk said he suspects the Clay County court will aim to work with less habitual offenders because an early intervention is likely the best shot at changing the behavior of batterers.

"It may be more effective to short-circuit those earlier on," Kirk said.

The idea, the judge said, is that the court would be "not only doing something positive for the people in front of us today but hopefully for their children tomorrow."

Clay County's drug court tries to limit its caseload to 30 defendants, but Kirk is hoping the domestic violence court can handle substantially more.

He's also hoping that it can lessen the strain on the court's general docket enough so that it can pay for itself.

Joe Parise, the managing attorney in Clay County's public defender office, said he applauds the program, though many defendants are bound to fail badly.

Parise said he'd prefer to see the court take the most serious cases because the "people that do the best are the ones that have the most to lose."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535