During the last legislative session North Dakota lawmakers unanimously passed a law requiring that “offenders who commit domestic violence crimes…participate in post-conviction hearings that will assess sentencing compliance,” as my colleague April Baumgarten reported earlier this month.
The legislation in the 2017 session was SB2309.
Here’s the relevant excerpt from the bill:
More specifics about how the program will work are coming out, because Grand Forks plans to launch it next month, and one aspect of it seems a bit like unequal treatment under the law.
According to materials sent to Grand Forks attorney Tyler Morrow, men who participate in the program will be required to undergo 27 weeks of treatment which they must pay anywhere from $185 to $860 dollars for.
Women, meanwhile, would only have to undergo 16 weeks of treatment which they would receive free of charge. Morrow pointed out the discrepancy on Facebook, posting a screenshot of information sent out about the new guideline’s from his local public defenders office:
“You have similarly situated individuals outside of their gender and they’re getting completely different sentences,” Morrow told me when I contacted him about his post. “If you have two individuals that everything is exactly the same besides a protected class and they get treated differently based on that protected class that’s an equal protection issue. To me that’s a no-brainer equal protection issue.”
“First I think it’s important to recognize that’s a separate issue from the domestic violence court,” Haley Wamstad with the Grand Forks States Attorney’s Office told me when I contacted her about Morrow’s concerns. She points out that the domestic violence court program is separate from the sentencing issue. The DV Court is merely a process of hearings whereby the court can check in on the progress made in treatment.
Wamstad says the sentencing of domestic violence offenders to treatment is something which has been going on for years, and she wasn’t concerned about the disparities between the programs offered to men and women.
“I’m by no means a facilitator of either of the two choices, but I do know that these programs are based on the Duluth Model which is an evidence-based domestic violence program model,” she told me. “There’s different material that’s covered, the specifics of which I can’t speak to. It’s not something that’s willy-nilly but something that’s based off of research and evidence.”
She insisted that the treatment regimens were fair because men are offered a sliding scale for fees, based on their ability to pay, and if they don’t pay at all they’ll still get treatment.
“Specifically at New Choices [the program offered to men] fees are assessed on a sliding scale,” she said. “They never turn anyone away due to inability to pay.”
But if men can pay, they’re expected to pay. Women don’t have that expectation.
“I don’t think it’s an equal protection thing because it’s a sliding fee scale. Someone’s inability to pay doesn’t prohibit them from participating in the program,” she added.
So does that mean a male who doesn’t want to pay for their treatment can just refuse to pay and get it anyway?
“I suppose you could look at it that way,” she told me but added that CVIC, the group which runs New Choices, might go after those men civilaly because “they need funding for their program.”
Women would never face civil consequences for not paying for treatment because they’re never expected to pay, even when they have the means.
I asked Wamstad who was funding the women’s program and she said she didn’t know.
I called CVIC and asked to speak with someone about this program but nobody was available this morning. I’ve sent them an email requesting comment and will certainly update this post with anything I get back.
This isn’t the only area where there seems to be a disparity between how men and women are treated in the court system. Consider these recent cases involving inappropriate relationships between teachers and students.
- Susan Duursma, a former middle school teacher in Bismarck, was found guilty of having sex with one of her 15 year-old students. Her sentence? She got 60 days in jail for felony child abuse after initially facing three counts of corrupting a minor and doesn’t have to register as a sex offender.
- Sara Joy Wurgler, a “paraprofessional” in the Fargo school system, pleaded guilty to showing nude pictures of herself to a 16 year old student. She got 30 days in jail on a misdemeanor charge and she also doesn’t have to register as a sex offender.
- Mandan school teacher Amanda Kolosky pleaded guilty to having sex with a 17 year old student. Her sentence? A one year suspended sentence, two years of probation, and she doesn’t have to register as a sex offender.
Now contrast those cases with how a male teacher is treated when accused of sexual misconduct with a student.
- Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel was charged with 5 felony counts, and potentially 35 years in prison, for allegedly having sexual contact with a 17 year old student in 2009. He was acquitted of the charges. He almost certainly would have had to register as a sex offender once released from prison.
- Grand Forks teacher James Whalen, meanwhile, got a four year prison sentence after having a sexual relationship with a 16 year old student, with two years suspended. He faced as many as 25 years in prison. He will have to register as a sex offender.
Anyone else noticing a trend?
UPDATE: Originally I misidentified Haley Wamstad as Haley Watson. I didn’t hear her name right during our phone call. I’ve updated the post to fix the error.