State urges local domestic violence prosecutors to avoid jailing victims

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – At a District Attorney General’s conference Tuesday in Pigeon Forge, state officials reminded Tennessee’s grant-funded domestic violence prosecutors that forcing victims to testify against their abusers and jailing those who won’t cooperate will not be tolerated.

It’s the latest action taken by the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs following concerns in Washington County about the rare, but severe practice of arresting victims for disobeying subpoenas.

As we previously uncovered, the federal grant many counties, including Washington County, use to prosecute domestic violence cases prohibits the practice. Our investigation revealed in Washington County that practice resulted in the arrests of more than a dozen victims over the course of a year.

Emails obtained through a public records request show the state office that oversees the grant took several steps to discourage the jailing of victims in the days after victims, attorneys and advocates raised concerns. Within days, public records show the state alerted the U.S. Department of Justice about the situation in Washington County.

“This was a limited issue due to a new position and will not happen again,” Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs Assistant Director Jennifer Brinkman said in an email to the DOJ on September 13. “This unallowable activity was both in our grant solicitation to them and special conditions signed by them.”


In addition, the office sent out a memo to all domestic violence prosecutors in the state who use the grant in question, reminding them federal funding prohibits them from forcing victims to participate in criminal proceedings and prohibits them from penalizing victims who refuse to testify. Prosecutors in Washington, Sullivan, Knox and Shelby counties, among others, received the memo.

“Participating in activities that are found to compromise victim safety will jeopardize your STOP (Violence Against Women Formula Grant) funding,” the memo sent from OCJP Director Bill Scollon on September 13 said.


The situation culminated Tuesday in Pigeon Forge, where state officials addressed the issue in-person with grant-funded prosecutors. Brinkman, who spoke to prosecutors, told us this is a complicated issue without a clear solution, but she believes everyone involved is making progress,

“Every case is different, every case has different mitigating circumstances and those all have to be taken into account. That’s one of the things that makes this issue so difficult,” she said. “In the end, what needs to happen is what’s best for the victim and if the victim is not ready to testify, then those cases may not need to be followed up on as vigilantly and that’s part of what we’re looking at now is what cases do we follow up on and what cases do we dismiss, because that’s what the victim says is best.”

Brinkman says the state is urging prosecutors to work toward getting more victims to trust the system and work to let those victims know their wishes matter. She says the state is also pursuing additional training to help with the investigative process, so police and prosecutors can build stronger cases when victims don’t want to prosecute.

“The more that law enforcement knows about the investigative process and the more that they know about what they include in those reports, the more credible they are as witnesses when the victim doesn’t come to court,” she said.

Tuesday’s visit followed a trip to Johnson City last month, where state officials met with prosecutors, the director of the domestic violence shelter, the Family Justice Center coordinator and Johnson City Police Department Chief Mark Sirois to, at a minimum, “build a procedure that focuses on trauma informed care and evidence based prosecution.”

Chief Sirois says from the beginning, everyone has had the best of intentions. Moving forward, he says those same people and agencies are even more focused on breaking the domestic violence cycle and improving victim safety, while still holding abusers accountable.

“I can see that this conversation is bringing even more voices to the conversation,” Chief Sirois said. “What the end product is going to be is a better response to victims’ needs and also, hopefully on the prosecution end, more prosecution of offenders.”

First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark previously said he was looking into an alternative that would allow a victim to appear before a judge and explain his or her situation, instead of going to jail for ignoring a subpoena. Brinkman says the community has stepped up to try and improve the situation.

“Johnson City has really come together to look at what do individuals need, how do we help individual victims,” Brinkman said. “I don’t think there was ever the intent for anything negative to happen, it was really about victim safety, getting everything that was needed to keep the batterer behind bars. I think we’ve had more knowledge and at this point, that’s the beauty of this, the more knowledge will only help us get better.”

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