ORLANDO, Fla. - While domestic violence is described as an epidemic in central Florida, victim’s advocates are outraged that the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office may be allowing thousands of accused abusers in Orange County to get away without paying for their crimes.
Some are especially outraged by the statistics Eyewitness News reporter Nancy Alvarez turned up.
During the first six months of the year, Alvarez discovered 566 domestic violence cases went to court in Orange County, but only 10 of those cases ended up with a trial and only five of those trials resulted in a conviction.
Of the remaining cases: 270 were settled with a plea deal; 277 were dropped due to weak evidence, witness problems or other issues; and nine others were dismissed before trial by the court.
Just this week, a year after Alvarez first visited a local batterer’s intervention class, the number of men receiving counseling as part of their domestic violence sentences had dropped significantly.
“Yesterday the phone didn’t ring once,” said Paula Basil of No Abuse.
Basil explained that the courts have stopped referring abusers to the program she has run for more than 20 years. She insisted it's because the State Attorney's Office dismantled a unit that specialized only in domestic violence cases.
One man who was receiving the counseling this week is one of those five people convicted at trial during the first half of the year.
“I pulled my ex-wife’s hair, punched her in the shoulder,” said the man, who did not want to be identified.
While his domestic violence case went to court, Alvarez found many other domestic violence cases never even made it that far during the first six months of this year.
Numbers for the first half of the year show law enforcement sent 4,638 cases to the State Attorney's Office. Of those, 3,833 cases -- or 83 percent of the total -- were dropped before they even made it before a judge.
“If we don't deal with this, it's not that it’s going to go away, it's that more people are going to die,” said Dr. Anthony Davis of the Domestic Violence Task Force.
Victim advocates said women are also losing a layer of protection when men are not ordered to programs like No Abuse.
The man at No Abuse whom Alvarez spoke with said the program changed his life.
“Until you learn you have a problem, you can't fix it,” he said.
Eyewitness News tried several times to speak to State Attorney Jeff Ashton on camera about how his office is handling domestic violence cases, but his office only responded with an email saying he denied the request for an interview.
However, Domestic Violence Commission co-chair Dick Batchelor told Alvarez he met with Ashton this week. Batchelor said work is underway to get tougher on these domestic violence cases and he added that may mean specialized training for prosecutors.
“I’m confident Jeff Ashton understands there is a problem,” Batchelor said. “I'm confident we're going to see some changes in the State Attorney’s Office.”