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KC Muni Court showcases ‘holistic’ domestic violence docket

Nephateri Hill speaks with Thomas Jenkins (seated)

Nephateri Hill, the domestic violence coordinator for the Kansas City Municipal Court, speaks with Thomas Jenkins about his positive experiences in being under her high-intensity supervision while participating in the court’s domestic violence compliance docket. (Photo by Scott Lauck)

Nephateri Hill recalls that when she first began working at the Kansas City Municipal Court in 1998, the approach to domestic violence was simple: “Everybody went to jail.”

Hill, who rejoined the court in 2022 as the court’s domestic violence coordinator, is part of a cutting-edge effort to take a rehabilitative approach to vast problem of violence between intimate partners.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” she said.

Hill was one of many staff presenters at the 2023 National Domestic Violence Court Open House, which the municipal court hosted on March 30 and 31. The event drew attendees from Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and elsewhere.

The city’s municipal court is unusual. Each year, it processes about 5,000 domestic violence cases as local ordinance violations, relieving a portion of the caseload that would otherwise be prosecuted in the circuit courts of the four counties that Kansas City touches.

The municipal court’s domestic violence division can still send offenders to jail for up to six months. But increasingly, the court has focused on what Presiding Judge Courtney Wachal described as a “holistic approach” that uses an intensive personal effort to help offenders turn their lives around while being held accountable.

Key to those efforts is the court’s “compliance docket,” a program launched in 2015 in which court staff evaluate offenders’ mental health, employment status, substance abuse issues and other factors as they intensely supervise high-risk offenders. If successfully completed, it can keep them out of jail, though it is a lot of work.

Gerald Sorensen, an assistant city prosecutor and the court’s domestic violence program director, said not all domestic violence is the same. Some offenders have pushed a loved one in a moment of anger. Others have tried to strangle their partner.

“Those are different people,” he said. “They need a different structure and different ramifications.”

Thomas Jenkins gestures while speaking, seated at a table

Thomas Jenkins, a participant in the compliance docket of the Kansas City Municipal Court’s domestic violence division, speaks about his experiences during the 2023 National Domestic Violence Court Open House on March 30, 2023. Jenkins and fellow program participant DeTrich Carter, at right, said the program’s hands-on supervision had helped them turn their lives around in a way that more punitive approaches hadn’t. (Photo by Scott Lauck)

In 2020, the court also launched a Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention, or RSVP, docket aimed at first-time male offenders between 18 and 24, whose issues often stem from poor impulse control.

Even among selective diversion program, RSVP is unusually targeted: Jenna Phelps, the prosecutor on the RSVP docket, said there are just four active at the moment.

“We’re still really tiny, but we’re working on making it bigger,” she said.

According to Wachal, the compliance docket’s recidivism is typically below the national average of 50 percent. Over the last year, the program saw just 13 of its 96 participants reoffend — a 20 percent recidivism rate that Wachal attributed to Hill’s particularly hands-on methods.

That approach was on display when two program participants spoke publicly about their experiences. Thomas Jenkins, 26, and DeTrich Carter, 31, both said they had been in legal trouble since they were children and had been placed in the program after altercations with ex-girlfriends. They previously found the criminal justice system to be eager to, as Carter put it, “send you up the river.”

In contrast, he said, in the current program, he’s been able to contact Hill in the middle of crises, and he described how Wachel has declined to revoke his probation even when it was justified because he was continuing to try to improve.

“They really care,” Carter said.

Hill, who said she’s currently juggling 43 probation cases, often communicates with program participants by text messages, allowing for instant responses. She often gets texts from offenders even when they aren’t required to report in, as they try to deal with one problem or another.

“If I were leaving a Google review,” Jenkins said, “I would definitely rate her as ‘responds promptly.’”