With eight convictions for family violence offenses, Cruz Ramirez Jr. was charged with a felony after he surprised his girlfriend at work one day in October 2013. She told officers he grabbed her by the hair and shoved her into a stairwell, then punched her twice in the chest and shoved her to the ground, police records show.
But a year after his October 2013 arrest, the couple had reconciled, the felony charge was dropped, and Ramirez pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced in January 2015 to one year in jail.
The Ramirez case offers a snapshot of what has become routine in Travis County criminal courts, an American-Statesman investigation shows.
Repeat domestic violence offenders are automatically charged with felonies in Texas after lawmakers passed reforms to protect victims who cannot extricate themselves from dangerous and increasingly violent relationships. But the felony cases are flooding the district attorney’s office in Travis County and are often reduced or tossed out.
The Statesman analyzed more than 900 felony domestic violence cases filed from October 2013 to October 2014 and found that nearly half of the defendants had prior felony family violence offenses.
In 65 percent of the cases analyzed, the felony charges were either dropped or pleaded down.
An additional 69 cases remained pending as of last week.
Austin courts officials say that, despite the findings, the criminal justice reforms are working. Travis County’s domestic violence court, founded in 1999, has become a model for other communities, and it has a prosecutor, Kelsey McKay, who is a national expert in building felony strangulation cases against repeat abusers.
Beverly Mathews, head of the district attorney’s family violence division, said new enhancements like those for repeat offenders make abusers more likely to plead down to a misdemeanors in cases that would have otherwise been thrown out had they originally been charged as lower offenses.
And harsher convictions aren’t always the solution. Incarceration can harm victims and their families who rely on the defendant for economic stability. “In many cases, if we secure a misdemeanor, that in itself is a victory,” Mathews said.
Others say the high percentage of reduced charges shows that the reforms are bogged down in a court system that remains too reliant on the victim’s willingness to press charges and testify against the abuser.
“There are some cases where you clearly need the victim to proceed, and there are some cases where you don’t,” said Margaret Bassett, a domestic violence counselor who last year left the district attorney’s office. “And then there is this huge middle ground of cases that I think are not always assigned to prosecutors with the training and understanding of the dynamics of family violence and who may make decisions from a place of misinformation or bias.”
Photo by Reshma Kirpalani