The debate between district attorney and judicial administrators and advocates who support Erie County's integrated domestic violence court is an opportunity for discussion and improvement of the system. But it is, in no way, cause for dismissal of the court.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III calls the court "a failed experiment." We respectfully disagree.
The Buffalo integrated domestic violence court was one of the first of more than 40 statewide. It has been very successful on several levels, including that there are no more conflicting orders of protection from the family, criminal and Supreme Court matrimonial parts. Before these courts were started, routinely there would be conflicting orders that were confusing and potentially endangered family members.
On this front, Sedita has proven to be an outlier. He is the only district attorney objecting to the domestic violence court, and this is the only county where there have been major issues with how the cases have been handled. Still, there is always room for improvement.
The court's intention is to provide a "one family, one judge" approach with a combination of criminal, family, matrimonial and other related problems. But the mechanics of how the system delivers justice does have its flaws.
Since November 2003, the integrated court has served 1,915 families involving 9,545 cases, according to the Office of Court Administration.
Sedita has not prosecuted misdemeanors and violations referred to the court since Aug. 24, although he continues to prosecute felony domestic violence cases in the same court, and in others. It is no wonder State Supreme Court Deborah A. Haendiges, the integrated domestic violence court judge, ordered Sedita to her courtroom recently to explain himself.
The chief of his appeals bureau instead addressed the court and referred to an affidavit by her boss that complained, among other things, that nearly half of the criminal cases transferred to the integrated court are dismissed or end with an acquittal, compared with the 2 percent dismissal and acquittal rate in the 10 non-IDV superior courts. Many of the cases referred to the specialized court were "unviable prosecutions" that should not have been filed in the first place, he said.
These numbers cited by the district attorney are different from the ones held by the court system. Also, court officials contend, the issue that the District Attorney's Office cannot review their cases is completely incorrect. Prosecutors at the local court level can review and make a determination as to what to do with their cases, as well as cases in the integrated domestic violence court.
The IDV court advocates are frustrated over a misconception that they are taking away the power of the district attorney in deciding what cases to prosecute. All they are doing, they contend, is moving the jurisdiction of these so that one judge handles all matters and is aware of all the facts and circumstances of each case.
Still, as true of all specialty courts, this one is very well intentioned, but the trouble lies in the details of meeting its goals.
Sedita may have overstated the problems, but court administrators should recognize that improvements can be made to the court, and Sedita should be willing to sit down with them and push for those improvements. The system is working in many other counties. There must be a way to make it work in Erie County.