Eight men shuffled into a classroom to spend 90 minutes learning how to stop abusing women.
The men settled into metal chairs around a long table. The group’s instructor, Brice Brogan, began by asking each man to describe what landed them in the court-ordered program. He warns them to be truthful.
“I have the police reports,” he said. “If it’s not close, I’m going to correct you.”
The men begin. One described burning his girlfriend on the neck. Another threatened his girlfriend with a gun during a fight when she said she was calling police. Another kicked in a door.
One man held his pregnant girlfriend down by her neck in a fight about his drug use. He was clean at the time, he said. It was his third trip through the batterer intervention course.
Treatment for many domestic crimes was mandated by the Montana Legislature in 2001, although there is no standard for the programs and not all the programs are available throughout the state.
The treatments also are not always specific to the crime. Judges can replace domestic violence treatment with drug or alcohol treatment and anger management courses. Neither address the power and control issues of a violent partner.
During 2014, Todd Michael Johnson beat four different women to the point of hospitalization. That string of beatings came after Johnson had four times been ordered by courts to complete anger management treatment.
Prosecutors and legislators are unsure how successful 40 hours of treatment can be in reversing a lifetime of abusive behavior.
Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, chairwoman of the bipartisan Commission on Sentencing, wants the programs to be better tracked. She introduced a bill this legislative session to direct the Montana Board of Crime Control to increase compliance monitoring, implement standards and evaluate the effectiveness of the courses.
Mandating treatment only works if it’s available to everyone and is evidence based, Wolken said.
In Billings, Alternatives Inc. is a company that contracts with the state to provide community-based correctional programs and runs year-round batterer intervention courses for both men and women. There may be anywhere from five to eight classes going at once, with a limit of 12 members per classroom. The classes meet once a week for 90 minutes.
Brogan, one of the course teachers, is a licensed counselor with Alternatives. He uses a power and control wheel to show the manipulation used in an abusive relationship. He tries to reverse some of the ingrained views men have about their partners.
When men start Brogan’s program, they tend to minimize their role in an assault. They want to share the blame with their partner. Brogan does not allow excuses.
“I don’t care what she does, you don’t have to get another domestic violence charge,” he said.
When a partner hits back, it's retaliation, not self-defense, Brogan said.
This was the first time going through treatment for 55-year-old Rickey Hemming. Hemming had multiple partner violence convictions dating back to the late-‘90s.
His second partner assault came in 2003, when he was ordered to undergo chemical dependency treatment.
Hemming teared up when he considered the 25 years he spent in prison for various crimes. When he looks back at the first time he was arrested, he said he would have liked to have gone through a program.
By the time he was charged with his third felony partner or family member assault and a criminal possession of dangerous drugs, he had struggled with violence and addiction for nearly 40 years.
District Judge Mary Jane Knisely recommended he go through the intense, nine-month Nexus drug treatment program and the mandatory 40 hours of batterer’s intervention treatment.
“Far as I’m concerned, only judge ever did anything for me was Judge Knisely,” Hemming said.
Hemming completed Nexus and was released to Alpha House, a halfway house run through Alternatives, in order to undergo batterer’s treatment.
He called the class a “good refresher course."
As Brogan listened to Hemming’s account of his past, he interjected from time to time, and corrected some of Hemming’s statements to make him more accountable.
Hemming still has work to do, Brogan said. He had only taken about six weeks worth of classes.
Brogan believes the men in his class do change. Students sometimes must go through the class several times to understand all the principles. Anyone could benefit from them, he said.
There is no start or finish to a class, so the members are all at different stages of completion. Offenders can complete the course in 27 weeks and offenders not living at one of Alternatives' facilities pay $25 a class.
Yellowstone County Judge Ingrid Gustafson runs the Yellowstone County Drug Court, which treats drug addicts according to individual needs.
Learning the most effective rehabilitative responses to partner family member violence is somewhat still in its infancy, Gustafson said.
After more than 30 years of study into effective drug courts, Gustafson said data shows putting an offender who is at low-risk to reoffend with an offender at a high risk to reoffend can damage the effectiveness of treatment.
But, that’s how domestic violence offenders are being treated in Montana.
Yellowstone Chief Deputy County Attorney Juli Pierce is part of a team that is working on proposing legislation this year to make strangulation a stand-alone felony. This is a step toward identifying a severe case of abuse early on. Many of the victims Pierce interviews who report strangulation are willing to testify against their partners. Some recognize the extreme risk of being strangled.
In 2007, Judi Wang from the Missoula City Attorney’s Office was the driving force behind changing the aggravated assault language to allow for strangulation to be prosecuted as a felony. Until then, strangulation during a domestic assault was prosecuted the same as punching a victim and could only be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.
During the same session, the Legislature removed the two-year mandatory minimum incarceration for aggravated assault.
Prior to the aggravated assault language changing, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office prosecuted 26 aggravated assault cases between 2003 and 2007. During the next five years, the office’s aggravated assault cases increased to 158. Strangulation was present in about 56 percent of those cases.
Since 2013, the office has charged 161 aggravated assault cases, with about 66 percent related to a strangulation offense.
Pierce is not certain about whether those numbers are attributable to an increase in violence, but does believe the increase can partly be attributed to an increase of recognition by both police and prosecutors about the seriousness of choking assaults. While treatment is not mandated for aggravated assault, Pierce includes it in many of the plea deals or release conditions.
Pierce does not see as many of her strangulation offenders return to court.
However, because of the way the aggravated assault law was written, victims must make very specific statements to allow prosecutors to move forward with a felony case, Billings City Attorney Ben Halverson said. Many cases of strangulation teeter on the line between felony and misdemeanor, Halverson said.
"They have to say exactly what we need, but most of them don’t know the language of our trade," Halverson said.
At the end of 2014, about 44 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some form of a strangulation statute. Montana was not one of them.
This will be the third time Pierce will go before the Legislature to advocate for laws to better address domestic violence. She was part of a team that proposed legislation in 2013 to make domestic violence convictions from other states count toward a person’s total number of cases in Montana, making it easier to identify repeat offenders.
Pierce was also part of a team that was unsuccessful in making it an additional misdemeanor if the domestic violence is committed in front of children.
Many states have adopted separate strangulation laws after a study showed repeat strangulation increased a victim’s chance of being killed, said Neil Websdale, a professor of criminal justice at Northern Arizona University. Websdale is director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative.
Strangulation cannot be the only factor in determining how risky a domestic violence situation is. Abuse occurring against a woman who is pregnant, using a weapon during abuse, and sexual assaults also increase the risk of death, Websdale said.
Montana law does not require treatment courses address sexual abuse in violent partner relationships, although the treatment model used by Brogan does include a section on the difference between rape and consensual sex.
The one-size-fits-all approach to punishment in domestic violence cases does not make sense, Websdale said.
There is a difference between hitting someone and battering someone, Websdale said. There are cases of situational couple violence where both parties are involved in a fight, but there is no attempt to control the behavior of the other, Websdale said.
Couples in these situations may benefit from counseling, but on the whole do not need to be involved in the criminal justice system, Websdale said.
The cases that should concern courts are ones involving what Websdale called “intimate terrorists.” This category can be broken into two profiles. A dependent batterer is the profile that makes up the majority of men who abuse partners.
These men often have low self-esteem and an intense fear of abandonment, Websdale said. They have a lot of pride in their masculinity and get angry when they feel they aren’t in charge of a situation. They do not exhibit these behaviors toward other men, Websdale said. But when they are with a woman, they feel they are entitled to take what they want. These men have a tendency to live isolated lives and have trouble establishing intimacy.
However, a minority of batterers do not follow this mold, Websdale said. Batterers with anti-social personality disorders make up less than 20 percent of the batterer population. These are men who are not as jealous and do not need to control a partner the same way a dependent batterer does. These abusers opt for manipulation of pretty much everyone, Websdale said.
Websdale is skeptical that dependent batterers can change their violent and controlling behavior without prolonged treatment. For the small percentage of anti-social batterers, Websdale said the only solution is prolonged incarceration.
Thomas Big Man, 32, just completed Brogan’s treatment class. Big Man has two previous felony PFMAs against an ex-girlfriend and against his mother. He watched his father abuse his mother for most of his life. When Big Man would try to protect his mother, he would turn into the target, he said.
Big Man had a drug and alcohol addiction. After his second felony conviction for PFMA, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
While he was in prison, his younger brother was convicted of PFMA. Big Man had committed his first misdemeanor PFMA when he was 18, against his brother.
“He looked up to everything I did,” Big Man said. “I felt like it was my fault.”
Big Man left prison after four years for a 60-day treatment course before going to Alpha House to complete his batterer intervention classes. When he leaves, he plans to move in with his new fiancée and her daughter.
Treatment can help people who keep an open mind, Big Man said.
Just before Christmas this year, Big Man’s mother forgave him for his assault against her.
During treatment, Big Man heard from victims who described how being abused had changed them. When Big Man thinks about his family and his future, violence is no longer an option, he said.
“If I ever hurt my fiancée or my daughter, it would destroy them,” Big Man said.