Study illustrates legal system disparity

MU concludes a four-year examination on domestic assault in mid-Missouri.
Monday, February 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A multi-part study of the response police, prosecutors and judges show to domestic violence in Missouri discovered inconsistencies in the civil and criminal justice system from county to county.

The inconsistencies were analyzed in relation to the population, average income, unemployment, number of prosecutors and number of law enforcement personnel in each county.

Mary Beck, MU law professor and head of the Family Violence Clinic in the Law School, launched the study when she faced problems with the rural legal system while working with victims of domestic violence at the clinic.

The study, a collaboration by MU’s Journalism, Law and Medical schools, began in 2002 and was limited to four counties: Cape Girardeau, Cooper, Boone and Callaway. The findings of the initial study led to a grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety to extend the research statewide.

In the first stage of the study, Beck said, MU law students collected data about domestic violence incident reports, domestic violence criminal charges and civil protective order filings.

Then, social scientists overseen by MU psychiatry professor Niels Beck analyzed the data, taking into account population, average income, unemployment and the number of prosecutors and law enforcement personnel to determine “outlier” counties.

Outlier counties are those that have a higher or lower domestic violence assault figures and Civil Protection Order rates than rates projected by the social scientists. The study focused on outlier counties where the actual rates were much lower than the projected rates.

Niels Beck said five factors might be responsible for discrepancy in the projected and actual rates: record keeping and reporting, law enforcement attitudes and practices, prosecutorial issues and the judges and the difficulty in making accurate predictions in low population counties.

The study’s final stage has been dissemination of the results through news reports, articles in scholarly journals and presentations. Using the data, journalism students found people who were victims of domestic violence to humanize their reports.

In explaining the impetus for the study, Mary Beck said traditional legal solutions had failed to work in some cases, and that led her to contact the Journalism School for a nontraditional approach to the problem.

Kent Collins, assistant professor in the Journalism School’s radio-television sequence, said the law students knew how to dig into courthouse records and the journalism students then used the data to make stories for KOMU-TV and KBIA-FM.

Collins said that among the stories journalism students did were those about police who were not properly trained in responding to a domestic violence call, the lack of funding to provide enough officers to respond 24 hours a day and about prosecutors, “some of whom are overworked, understaffed or insensitive, and finally judges who are unaware of the nuances of the laws and in some cases downright neglectful of their responsibilities.”

Mary Beck said one of the findings of the study was that an interdisciplinary team approach works better in dealing with domestic violence.

“We hope that it will draw attention to the fact that state legislators have passed good laws to protect victims of domestic violence,” Collins said, “but have failed to provide enough money for local law enforcement to obey the laws.”

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