BROOKSVILLE — A dozen years ago, as the number of domestic violence cases was on the rise, Hernando County decided on a new approach.
Ranging from simple battery to attempted murder, the cases would be heard on a separate docket by a single judge and handled by prosecutors and public defenders with special training. The goal was to take a more holistic approach to get the best outcome in cases where victim and defendant often are loved ones with children.
By most accounts, the court — the only one of its kind in the 5th Circuit's five counties — worked well for years. Soon, it will be gone.
Chief 5th Circuit Judge Don F. Briggs issued an order Oct. 14 dissolving the court as of Jan. 1. The move came at the request of the State Attorney's Office, which is having trouble staffing the court with limited resources.
Briggs consulted with both the Public Defender's Office and Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr., who serves as Hernando's administrative judge. Neither objected, the order said.
Several years ago, with the caseload continuing to grow, the domestic violence court was split into two dockets, each heard by a county judge on alternating weeks. That has made it difficult for Hernando's domestic violence prosecutor, Shannon Laviano, to keep up and avoid scheduling conflicts between hearings and trials, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway. There isn't enough funding to assign another full-time prosecutor to the domestic violence docket.
"From a staffing standpoint, it became more of a problem than a solution," Ridgway said. "You lose the benefit of having one dedicated lawyer if that one lawyer is swamped and can't dedicate the time to those cases they might normally get."
The move has raised concerns among some attorneys and advocates.
"The advantage of the domestic violence court is that all the players are the same from court meeting to court meeting," said Shannon Sokolowski, executive director for the Dawn Center, a nonprofit shelter for domestic violence victims in Hernando. "Everybody specializes in domestic violence and understands the dynamics and nuances to a case that could be missed."
The Dawn Center has an advocate based at the courthouse who attends domestic violence court and helps victims navigate the system. Sokolowski said it's likely going to be more difficult for that person to keep track of cases spread among several dockets.
"My one person can't be multiple places at once, so we're not sure how we're going to work that," Sokolowski said, adding that the center cannot afford to add a staffer.
Fifth Circuit Public Defender Mike Graves said his Hernando office has a dedicated domestic violence attorney who is also struggling under the workload and is often assisted by another lawyer.
Domestic violence cases are labor intensive for attorneys on both sides, Graves said.
"It's heavy monitoring, heavy follow-up, very heavy on client contact," he said. "You're kind of part lawyer, part social worker. We just have to make sure we take that hard work into other courtrooms. It's logistically going to be more difficult, but I don't think it's something that's going to dramatically change the quality of justice or resources we're able to dedicate."
Both Ridgway and Graves said they will make sure their stables of attorneys have been trained to handle domestic violence cases. Victim advocates in the State Attorney's Office will still provide the same services, Ridgway said.
"The concern that we had going into this was whether we would still be able to handle cases with the same specialized treatment, and we're satisfied we can do that," he said.
Jimmy Brown, a private defense attorney who handles a substantial number of domestic violence cases, said a dedicated domestic violence court "greatly increases uniformity in proceedings and dispositions."
"Where these cases are just a part of a regular docket, it is easier for perspective to be warped either in favor of the victim's position or the defendant's, and for vastly disparate treatment, which can become fundamentally unfair and disproportional," Brown said. "(Eliminating the court) may save us some money, but I see it as a false economy and a step away from even administration and equal justice."
Laviano said there were 145 open domestic violence cases as of last week in Hernando, 75 of them felonies. In a world of limitless resources, she said, the special court probably wouldn't go away.
"It's certainly not ideal," she said, "but I think it will be best to spread the cases to the different attorneys and have more people give them the time that they need."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected]bay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.