Ohio’s laws involving domestic violence mean that for vast majority of the time, first-time domestic-violence offenders only receive a misdemeanor-level criminal charge, and that’s no different in Athens.

If somebody is convicted of domestic violence for the first time in Ohio, no matter how serious the case may be, it’s almost always considered a misdemeanor-level crime, meaning a less serious punishment than if the person were convicted of a felony-level crime.

That person would only be charged with a felony-level crime if they commit domestic violence again, and the maximum charge they can receive at that point is a third-degree felony, with a maximum punishment of three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

The Athens City Prosecutor’s office, which is responsible for charging people with misdemeanor-level crimes that occur in Athens County, issued 71 charges for misdemeanor domestic violence in 2017, but only 13 people pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence, according to statistics provided by the City Prosecutor’s Office. Of those 71 charges, 25 of the cases were dismissed; eight of the charges were amended to assault; 22 of the charges were amended to persistent disorderly conduct; and one of those charges was amended to disorderly conduct.

Meanwhile, the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office provided statistics Friday (Sept. 21) showing that that office charged 14 total people with felony domestic violence in 2017, and four people with misdemeanor domestic violence.

The maximum penalty for a first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence charge is six months in jail and/or fine up to $1,000; if it’s a second-degree misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is 90 days in jail and/or a fine up to $750; if it’s a third-degree misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is only 60 days in jail and/or a fine up to $500.

Chief City Prosecutor Tracy Meek said in an interview earlier this summer that “nine times out of 10,” domestic violence cases that are dismissed by her office are done so at the request of the victim. In the case of the 13 charges of misdemeanor domestic violence that people pleaded guilty to in 2017, The NEWS found multiple cases of those people (12 men and one woman) facing little or no jail time, typically in lieu of completing a diversion program and attending counseling services.

My Sister’s Place Executive Director Kelly Cooke earlier this summer cited a number of reasons for why the conviction rate for domestic violence is so low.

“Victims of domestic-violence crimes sometimes wish for charges to be dropped against their abusers for a number of reasons,” she explained. “It could be the case that the victim is being threatened with further abuse if they do not drop charges. In other cases, the victim is dependent upon the abuser for financial and other kinds of support, or the victim does not want her or his partner to get into legal trouble. Testifying and otherwise participating in a prosecution can be traumatizing and overwhelming for victims and could also heighten their risk of further abuse.”

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said he believes the state should look into increasing the severity of punishments for those found guilty of domestic violence for the second time.

“It should go higher than a third-degree felony,” he said.

Blackburn explained that domestic-violence offenders can face multiple other charges if the facts of the case warrant it, such as felonious assault or other related crimes.

MSP Director Cooke said it’s important to remember that domestic violence is a “crime, not a private family matter.”

“For that reason, the victim cannot drop charges,” Cooke said. “Prosecutors are the ones who decide whether to move forward with a case or to drop charges. When a victim wants the charges to be dropped or is refusing to participate, this can be challenging for prosecutors. There are a number of factors that come into play, including the concerns of the victim and whether the case can be brought forward with existing evidence (including prior police reports), but without the victim. This would be ideal, but it's not always possible.”

Cooke noted that MSP has a full-time court advocate who assists with filing civil protection orders, provides victims with legal information, and can accompany victims through court. MSP also provides outreach counseling for people who are dealing with “any type of abuse.” MSP’s hotline number is 1-800-443-3402.

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