Op-Ed: Task Force Needed on Criminal Justice Response to Domestic Violence

Tiffany Wilson was killed on a Newark street by her former partner. An algorithm had concluded he did not pose a risk to the community

Patricia Perlmutter
Just over one year ago, on the morning of February 6, 2018, Kareem Dawson shot and killed Tiffany Wilson, his former partner and the mother of their two children, as she ran for her life on a Newark street where she had recently relocated, looking for safety.

At the time of the murder, Dawson was facing criminal charges for assaulting Wilson and had violated three separate judicial orders to keep away from her. Under New Jersey’s relatively new Criminal Justice Reform Act, the presiding criminal judge could have sent Dawson to jail to await his trial but instead set him free after conducting two separate pretrial detention hearings. Why?

Ignoring clear warning signs of the real and escalating danger Dawson posed to Wilson and their children, the court instead relied on a mathematical algorithm, the state’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA), to conclude that he did not pose a risk to the community.

Wilson’s tragic — and seemingly preventable — death forced the state to rethink its approach to domestic violence risk in pretrial decision making. In the year since her murder, New Jersey has taken important steps to improve its approach to assessing pretrial risk. But compared to other states and municipalities around the country, New Jersey could do more to use risk information to promote victim safety and offender accountability.

Certain risk factors not being considered

The death of Tiffany Wilson exposed the limitations of the PSA as a tool in domestic violence cases. The PSA measures the risk to the community of a defendant’s release but does not calculate the threat to a specific and identifiable victim or consider known risk factors for intimate partner violence. Some defendants will measure as low-risk on the PSA and yet still pose an imminent threat of serious harm to an intimate partner. This left a blind spot in our criminal justice system that put some victims, including Wilson, at risk.

Wilson was the third case of intimate-partner homicide committed by a defendant on pretrial release following implementation of New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform Act in a one-year period.

Wilson’s murder became the catalyst for reforms to the process of assessing risk of release in domestic violence cases. The judiciary and the Attorney General implemented changes to ensure that information about domestic violence risk factors — access to guns, attempted strangulation, and threats to kill — collected by the police, is available to criminal judges to consider in hearing prosecutorial detention motions.

What remains unclear is how the judges are to reconcile that information with PSA scores. The New Jersey judiciary announced last spring its intention to support research to expand the PSA to account for domestic violence risk — news which advocates for victims of domestic violence welcomed — but there is no timetable yet on the development of the new tool.

Calling for a task force

In the meantime, New Jersey should convene a multi-disciplinary task force, as other states and municipalities have done, to identify and develop effective strategies for a more risk-informed coordinated community response to domestic violence. The task force, which could be convened either at the state or county level, should determine whether current domestic violence risk assessment tools, utilized by the police, are effective for their intended purposes of measuring domestic violence risk and providing for enhanced safety for all victims, including those from marginalized communities. This means understanding the challenges police face in the field surveying victims following a crime, learning from victims about their hopes and fears when they engage with the criminal justice system, and enhancing cooperation between the criminal justice and social service systems to improve safety for survivors and their families while respecting the constitutional rights of defendants.

To thoughtfully and systematically examine New Jersey’s criminal justice response to domestic violence risk will be a time-consuming task involving multiple agencies, victims, and advocates. The potential rewards are great. We owe it to Tiffany Wilson, her children, and countless survivors of domestic violence to do better.