CSAO: Speaker's Task Force on Domestic Violence - January 10, 2011

Testimony of State's Attorney Kevin D. Lawlor
Judicial District of Ansonia-Milford
Speaker's Task Force on Domestic Violence
January 10, 2011
 

First of all I want to thank the Chairpersons of the Task Force for the invitation to speak to you on this important topic. My presentation this morning will focus on some of the shortcomings in our criminal justice system which my office uncovered as we investigated the murder of Shengyl Rasim on January 17, 2010.

As background, on January 17, 2010, Selami Ozdemir brutally shot his young wife, Shengyl Rasim, as she held her crying infant in her arms and their young son slept in the next room. During the prior 4 months, Mr. Ozdemir was arrested by the West Haven Police Department on two separate occasions for domestic violence offenses involving his wife. On both occasions, Mr. Ozdemir was bonded out by a bail bondsman. Shortly after his release on his second arrest, Ozdemir returned to the home and armed with a friends semi-automatic handgun, shot her multiple times. He then turned the gun on himself. Mr. Ozdemir died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

My office’s investigation focused on determining the exact chain of events leading up to the murder and also to identify gaps in the system that might have prevented the tragedy. My office identified several issues in this case. The ones I will focus on this morning are:

  1. The bail bondsman’s ability to bond out Mr. Ozdemir without obtaining any monetary compensation from the accused.
  2. The gap in treatment in the Family Violence Education Program, and
  3. The need for increased supervision of Family Relations clients by court counselors.

First, I would like to focus on the issue of bail bonds. A troubling factual allegation in this matter involves the ability of Mr. Ozdemir’s bail bondsman to obtain his release without receiving any payment whatsoever. Normally, a professional bondsman obtains a premium of between 7% and 10% of the bond posted in exchange for a suspect’s release. Under the United States Constitution, bail must be reasonable and is designed to assure a defendant’s future appearance in court. Police and the courts are required by statute to take a number of factors into consideration when determining the amount of bond to be set in any particular case including reasonably assuring the safety of other persons involved in the case, see C.G.S. §54-64a(2).  Currently, Connecticut state law, C.G.S. §29-151 does not prevent a professional bondsman from posting a bond for an arrestee and not taking any fee. This statute merely provides a maximum allowable percentage fee but not a minimum required fee. Theoretically, an arrestee could obtain his release on a one million dollar bond without providing any money to anyone if a bondsman is willing to post the bond for free. This is currently a business decision made by a private party who has no responsibility to weigh the significant public safety risks associated with his decision. The bondsman is also not currently required to immediately fill out any paperwork outlining the contractual relationship between the parties.

In the Ozdemir case, police set a $25,000.00 bond based on the seriousness of the charges, the repeated activity against the victim, the defendant’s current criminal record and other factors. Under normal circumstances, the defendant would have had to raise $2500.00 to pay the bondsman prior to his release or provide $25,000 cash himself to the police. His ability to immediately be released prevented any cooling off period and allowed him to immediately leave the police department and obtain the handgun used in this homicide.

The Insurance Department in consultation with the Division of Criminal Justice introduced legislation this past legislative session specific to bail bond industry reform. This proposed legislation failed on the last day of the General Assembly session.

Specifically, the proposal would have done the following:

  1. Prohibit an agent from executing a bail bond unless they charge the premium rate the insurer filed with the insurance department;
  2. Require a bail bond agent to certify under oath that the premium charged did not differ from that which is filed and approved by the insurance department;
  3. Allow a bail bond agent to enter into premium financing arrangements to allow payment plans for defendants with a minimum down payment of 35%, with payment in full due within 15 months;
  4. Require surety companies to conduct audits of bail bond agents to ensure that they receive full payment when posting bail bonds; and,
  5. Require surety companies to certify the integrity of the bail bond agents and to assume full responsibility for the acts and conduct of their appointed agents.

The bill also established standards for solicitation, reporting requirements and accounting for premiums along with establishing uniform standards of record retention to ensure that the Insurance Department has access to tangible records when conducting market conduct exams of bail bond agents. 

In addition, the bill included a funding mechanism by assessing bail bond agents an annual fee of $450.00 that would enable the department to have adequate resources to conduct market conduct examinations of the bail bond industry. 

These common sense reforms would help prevent arrestees in domestic violence cases from literally getting a “Get out of jail free” card and almost instantly re-offending against unsuspecting victims or fleeing the jurisdiction.

Our current system, where an individual can post only a nominal amount and be released on bond has had an unexpected consequence: bail inflation. This problem has created a system where no one knows how much a person needs to post to be released from pre-trial incarceration. Prosecutors, Judges and Bail Commissioners increase the recommended amounts in some cases to attempt to guard against this problem. Simply put, right now the numbers are not real, it’s like monopoly money. Just last week, in my court, an individual failed to appear on a serious armed robbery. At his arraignment, it was pointed out it was a dangerous offense and he was a serious risk of flight because he was a Polish born legal alien. The Judge set a $200,000 bond. Last week, when he failed to appear for court we found out that his family only had to post $2000 or 1% of his bond to secure his release.

The second recommendation I will address is the gap in treatment in the Family Violence Education Program (FVEP). Currently, a defendant placed in the FVEP must wait for treatment for many weeks until a seat becomes available. This gap in services appears to have left defendants and victims with obvious needs for assistance without any services for a significant period of time. This puts defendants at greater risk of re-offending and victims at greater risk of being victimized again. The Judicial Branch has recognized this shortcoming. Since this incident, the Judicial Branch has increased the number of FVEP classes offered in order to decrease the backlog. Currently, a backlog of approximately 45 days remains in this district and 60 days statewide. According to the Family Relations Office, at risk defendants awaiting the FVEP can now be referred to alternative counseling prior to the commencement of the FVEP. According to the Judicial Branch, a Family Relations Counselor may employ, but are not limited to, the following options: Individual counseling with a specific focus, substance abuse/alcohol evaluation, treatment, and or testing, parenting classes, referral to alternative to incarceration programming, and the interventions available within the Adult Behavioral Health Services (substance abuse treatment, group anger management, and mental health evaluation and treatment). The utilization of these services varies by individual office.

As this case exemplifies, it is difficult to predict who is “at risk” of future violence. Therefore, we would recommend a further increase in the number of FVEP treatment groups in order to minimize the wait time for the program. Also, some form of formal reporting and supervision should continue for all defendants placed in the program for the period of time prior to the completion date. I will address increased supervision of clients by FRO next.

The third topic I will address is the need for increased supervision of Family Relations criminal clients by court counselors. While FRO Counselors are not given the responsibility of supervising those accused of domestic violence while their case is pending, there appears to be a need for increased supervision of domestic violence defendants. Regretfully, they lack the resources or supervisory powers to do so.

In the Ansonia- Milford Judicial District, FRO Counselors are assigned over 100 domestic violence clients each. FRO Counselors also are required to maintain a caseload of Family Court matters as well. Counselors in this district anecdotally estimate that as much as 30% of their time is spent on family cases involving reports to court on matters such as child custody, child visitation, child support and restraining orders. This percentage split appears to be the statewide average per the Judicial Branch.

These added duties, on top of a substantial domestic violence caseload, reduce the ability of individual counselors to do more than administratively monitor defendants. They require defendants to periodically report by telephone or to the office. FRO is dependent on progress reports from the agencies defendants are referred to. More involvement by caseworkers at this stage likely would increase the level of participation by defendants and decrease recidivism as well. As common sense and experience in criminal justice tell us, those that know they are being watched closely are more likely to actively engage in treatment and less likely to re-offend. Increased participation by defendants at this stage would lead to a decrease in the numbers of individuals who would require supervision by probation or require incarceration. This could result in a substantial long term financial savings to the state.

This level of supervision has been approached to some extent by the 16 FRO counselors assigned to domestic violence dockets in the 12 Courts statewide that have them. Those counselors do not have Family Court responsibilities. In lieu of Domestic Violence Courts in every Judicial District which may be cost prohibitive, it was a recommendation of our report that additional FRO Counselors be assigned to solely deal with criminal cases. These workers should also be given the tools and training to effectively prioritize domestic violence cases for different degrees of monitoring and more closely monitor those defendants they supervise.

Thank you for allowing me to speak to you and I would be happy to answer any questions any of the members may have.



Content Last Modified on 2/22/2012 4:07:50 PM