Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Domestic Violence Offenders in the Criminal Justice System

A 1992 murder of a domestic violence victim in Orange County changed the way judges considered bail for people charged with domestic violence.

Dusty Spencer was arrested for choking his wife Karen in December 1991.  He told her that if he got out, he would kill her.  And he did so very violently.

Mr. Spencer was held on a no-bond status after he called his wife from the jail and threatened to kill her.  His wife obtained a temporary restraining order the day after his arrest, which prevented him from returning to the home.  A few days after his arrest another judge set bond at $5,000, which Mr. Spencer paid through a bail bondsman and he was released.  On January 18, 1992 he went to his house, dragged his wife into the back yard, smashed her face with a brick, stabbed her and rammed her head into a concrete wall.  When deputies arrived she was already dead.

A January 8, 2001 article on the case in the Orlando Sentinel said that after Mrs. Spencer’s killing, judges refused to set bail in most domestic violence cases as perpetrators were regarded as potential murderers.  But an appeals court forced judges to consider bail in most cases. 

The Purpose of Bail

The main purpose of bail is to ensure the appearance of the defendant at all required court proceedings.  If the defendant fails to appear for court the bail agent is financially responsible to pay the court the bail amount in full. 

Whether the court orders a defendant released on a bail bond, taxpayer-funded release or release on own recognizance, there is no guarantee that a future crime will not be committed.  That is why it is so important for the judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to have a good assessment of a defendant to determine the risk to the community upon release. 

It is all of our responsibility to do our part to hold perpetrators accountable and victims safe.  That includes the jail staff that screens the defendant for first appearance, the judiciary, state attorney, public defender, the bail agent that takes the risk to post bail for a domestic violence offender or others who are charged with supervision of that offender.  None of us can sit back and not do our due diligence to make sure we are doing all we can to ensure a successful outcome of a case.

Financial Release

There has been much debate as to whether or not financial release punishes the poor and rewards the wealthy.  We have discussed those issues in previous blog postings.  However it is not hard to understand that when someone has personal financial resources, or a family or friend’s financial resources at stake, they may tend to take a situation more seriously and do what they should.  

Particularly in cases of domestic violence, all parties involved in a case should consider other conditions of release outside of just financial conditions, to again add a layer of accountability and community safety.  No one should simply allow a defendant charged with domestic violence to post a bond and then hope that all will turn out well – not the court, jail staff or the bail agent on the bond.

There are many scenarios where government and private industry work together for a common goal.  The criminal justice system should be no exception.  Operating in a silo gets little results while combining the expertise and resources of all enhances successful results.

Taxpayer-Funded Release

There has been a growing concern among domestic violence advocates that perpetrators charged with domestic violence are being released from jail on non-financial release with minimal supervision – calling into an automated telephone answering system or at most, a quick face-to-face meeting with a jail employee to “check-in.”  Or the domestic violence offense is plead down to a lesser offense. 
And we all know that house arrest or GPS monitoring is only good if someone is actually doing the monitoring.

Domestic violence is a prevalent crime and one that is often unpredictable.  People with no history of domestic violence and those who have long histories of domestic violence can escalate such violence to dangerous and lethal levels. 

Can financial release for domestic violence offenders increase safety for victims?  It is a debate that should be considered.  Offenders who must post significant financial resources or rely of a family member to do so for them, knowing the financial impact for not adhering to release conditions, have something at stake in their release.  That doesn’t mean that a bail agent securing the release of a domestic violence offender should just take the money and not take the individual’s offense seriously.  Domestic violence offenders should be held to a higher level of accountability while being given the tools and resources to help them change their controlling behaviors.  Others would argue that domestic violence offenders should be held without bond, which would then raise the issue of jail overcrowding and the impact on taxpayers.  There needs to be a better solution.

Orange County Releases

A recent sample of 14 weeks of releases into the Orange County, Florida jail’s taxpayer-funded pretrial services program, revealed that defendants charged with domestic violence, dating violence, battery, violation of domestic violence injunction, assault domestic violence and aggravated battery domestic violence are being released on non-monetary means.  Tax dollars are being spent to arrest, process, release and supervise these defendants.  If any of these defendants fail to appear for court, more tax dollars will be spent trying to find them.

From December 29, 2013 through April 5, 2014, 178 defendants charged with the above offenses were released on taxpayer funds – some charged with more than one offense and some with prior abuse offenses.  All but seven were declared indigent by the court, although 31 of those indigent defendants had lengthy criminal histories and had secured financial release several times for previous arrests.  Some defendants charged with these offenses had only traffic histories while others had no criminal history. 

For example:

  • Defendant A – released on non-monetary means on 1.5.14 charged with domestic violence and two contempt of court charges.  Defendant’s history includes 19 traffic offenses, four misdemeanors, 15 felonies and one prior domestic violence chargeDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release four times.
  • Defendant B – released on non-monetary means on 1.24.14 charged with domestic violence.  Defendant’s history includes 8 traffic offenses, 7 no degree offenses, ten misdemeanors and ten feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release eight times.
  • Defendant C – released on non-monetary means on 2.2.14 charged with domestic violence and criminal mischief.  Defendant’s history includes 2 traffic offenses, 1 no degree offense, 21 misdemeanors, 11 felonies, two prior domestic violence charges and one assault charge on law enforcementDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release 16 times.
  • Defendant D – released on non-monetary means on 2.9.14 charged with dating violence.  Defendant’s history includes 1 traffic offense, six misdemeanors and three feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release seven times.
  • Defendant E – released on non-monetary means on 2.9.14 charged with domestic violence.  Defendant’s history includes 3 traffic offenses, 13 misdemeanors and nine feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release five times.
Across the country, defendants are being released into these taxpayer-funded programs for a variety of offenses, both misdemeanor and felony.  However given the volatile and unpredictable nature of domestic violence, increased collaboration between the public and private sectors in the criminal justice system should occur to hold perpetrators more accountable for their behavior and encourage survivors to seek help and assistance.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone.  It costs all of us.

To learn more read Harbor House of Central Florida's 2012-2013 Impact Report.


  1. I personally feel that domestic violence crimes should be non-bailable. We should always take note that this is already driven by passion or hate and the emotions running through are very strong. Therefore, there is really an apparent possibility of the accused to get back to the complainant and continue the crime that he has made due to anger.

    Richard Della Fera @ RDF Attorney

  2. Domestic violence is a bad offense and it is very necessary to take strict steps to eliminate such violence. Now a days, many firms like Castellano legal are providing the service of criminal defense attorney to protect the rights of the citizens.

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