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Lancaster County’s Domestic Violence Court had its first session Thursday

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LANCASTER — Lancaster County’s Domestic Violence Court officially launched on Thursday, with 12 defendants appearing at its first session, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release.

The court will be held every other Thursday at the Lancaster County Courthouse. It’s goal is to provide safety to victims and immediate treatment for offenders, while increasing overall efficiency. A group of specialized prosecutors familiar with domestic violence law will handle the caseload, while attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office will be available for defendants without private counsel.

About 600 misdemeanor and felony domestic-violence cases are referred each year to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office. The expectation is that approximately 500 to 600 cases will go through DV Court annually, with about 20 per session, the DA’s office says.

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said reducing domestic violence in Lancaster County is a “top priority.”

“This springboards off the success of DUI Central Court and will not only increase efficiency — saving taxpayer dollars — it will absolutely help protect victims of abuse and hopefully prevent future incidents,” Stedman said in the news release.

Magisterial District Judges will preside over DV Court sessions. They will preside over preliminary hearings and guilty plea hearings in summary cases. Trials and pleas involving misdemeanor and felony charges will go before Lancaster County Judge Merrill Spahn.

DV Court serves as an immediate first step in the progression of a case. Previously, the first actions in such cases happened sporadically at district courts across the county, with victims and police having to attend. The new model presents a more centralized format and enables the progression of numerous cases at one session.

The DA’s office says DV Court is designed with these main purposes:

  • To protect victims and their families by getting defendants into court as quickly as possible without jeopardizing due process. This program will minimize the number of required court appearances so a victim can move past the incident and court process and focus on rebuilding their daily life.
  • To reduce recidivist behavior through more immediate treatment for offenders. Due to the documented high rate of repeat behavior in domestic-violence cases, it is important that offenders can take responsibility and enter treatment as quickly as possible. Parole/Probation officials will be at each session of DV Court to provide immediate supervision of rehabilitative treatment in accordance with each defendant’s sentence.
  • To expedite the disposition of cases while regarding the interests of the victim and due process rights of the defendant. A defendant’s first appearance in DV Court can happen within 14 days of charge(s) being filed. Ideally, if the defendant elects to plead guilty after consulting an attorney, the goal is to provide that resolution within a month or two of the criminal offense.

At Thursday’s opening session, 12 defendants appeared before District Judge Robert Herman. Ten defendants waived preliminary hearings and are scheduled for plea/disposition hearings on Aug. 31. One defendant pleaded guilty to a summary charge. The other defendant had his preliminary hearing continued so to obtain an attorney.

Assistant District Attorney Susan Ellison, supervisor of the Special Victims Unit, along with Assistant District Attorneys Andrew LeFever and Amara Riley were at Thursday’s session and will be at upcoming sessions.

“I certainly appreciate the willingness of the courts to adopt our plan and set this innovative program in motion, as well as the police departments who are expediting their cases so this model will work,” Stedman said. “It takes a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration from all agencies to get this done and done right.”