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Blocks from the courthouse in Dorchester, Mass., the billboard hovers above Washington Street like a disapproving parent. Your car slows down, your eyes can’t help but read it, again and again: “Women and Kids. You Can’t Beat Them.” This is meant literally. There are no hidden messages, no subtext here in Dorchester. This working-class, multicultural neighborhood south of Boston has the second-highest domestic violence caseload in the state. The community has gone to the streets — and the courts — to try and get a handle on it. Its staunchest ally in the fight has been the U.S. Justice Department. Like the billboard, the federal presence once would have given pause. Traditionally, federal law enforcement didn’t cross the threshold into the bedroom. But domestic violence hasn’t escaped the 1990s trend in the federalization of street crimes. Here in Dorchester, the feds are an active partner in combating spousal and partner abuse. In September, Attorney General Janet Reno came to Dorchester to christen the opening of the first court in the nation dedicated solely to domestic violence cases. The court — one courtroom in the Dorchester District Court and two sitting judges — will hear no other matters. Federal money made it possible — a $1.9 million grant from the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women office, created under Reno’s watch. “The grant has been the carrot to put all the cases in one session,” says Dorchester District Court Chief Judge Sydney Hanlon, who presides over the majority of the cases in the court. At the September ceremony, Reno handed a gavel to Hanlon, but she may as well have given her a bag of money. The most profound change in the Justice Department since Reno took office has been the millions of dollars the department distributes to local communities across the country. In fact, it is this funding mechanism that is a primary reason why the department’s budget has more than doubled in the eight years under Reno, from $10 billion to more than $21 billion a year. It isn’t just the widely publicized COPS program, which sought to place 100,000 new police officers on American streets. It isn’t only the money poured (as it is in Massachusetts) into combined federal-state anti-drug task forces. Under Reno, there is a deep fiscal connection between the Justice Department and cities and local law enforcement agencies. The budget for the Office of Justice Programs, the DOJ arm that disperses grant money, has grown from $800 million in 1994 to almost $5 billion in 1999. In 10 years, it has grown at five times the rate of the department as a whole. The grants do more than pay police salaries — they help fund local drug courts, establish community-based crime prevention programs (“Weed and Seed”), and conduct statistical research into the causes of crime. While some of the programs started before Reno, she has made them a central tenet of her approach to the job. “She loves that part of what she does,” says Deputy Associate Attorney General Charles Simon, who helps oversee the DOJ’s grant-making machine. “The AG would say that criminal justice is not just arresting and prosecuting bad guys,” Simon says. “It’s about preventing people from going down that path in the first place. It’s a different kind of perspective on what it means to be the attorney general.” Among her many distinctions during her time in office, Reno has traveled across the country more than any attorney general in history, visiting almost every state. In the first half of November alone, she bounced from San Diego to North Carolina to New York City. All with the clock on her tenure running down. More often than not, she comes bearing gifts. Hanlon was thrilled to meet her. The picture of the two of them hangs in her office. “It’s amazing,” Hanlon says. “I’ve worked in politics since I was 14. She looks right into you. She remembers people from Dorchester. She has put violence against women and children on the law enforcement agenda in a way I’ll always be grateful for.” Dorchester community activist Mercedes Tompkins says Reno’s visit “raised the profile of the issue,” adding, “People in the community were really buzzed. She’s dealt with things like Elian Gonzalez and Waco, and she took the time out to say this is an important issue.” Before Reno spoke to the public, Tompkins says the AG turned to the gathered local officials and said, ” ‘If you ever need anything from me, please don’t hesitate to call.’ “ Tompkins adds, “It was touching. She didn’t have to do that.” But some see the infiltration of federal money into local law enforcement as an encroachment on state power, giving the Justice Department a foothold locally that it shouldn’t have. “There are no powers for the national government to get involved in local crime issues,” says Todd Gaziano, senior fellow in legal studies at the Heritage Foundation, “so they try to do so through bribes.” ORDERS IN THE COURT There is a queue of unhappiness lined outside 5th Session, on the second floor of the Dorchester District Court: grim-faced men in casual clothes sitting alone, waiting to be called. Tear-splashed women, their lawyers at their sides. “Michelle, you need to listen to me,” a prosecutor is saying over and over. “You need to hear what I’m saying.” Crowned with a series of white arches and painted in a soft blue, Hanlon’s courtroom looks more like a Protestant church. And her approach is less autocratic, more personal than other judges. Today, she tells a young woman named Pamela, who has come seeking a restraining order against her boyfriend, to approach the bench. Standing with Pamela is a victims’ advocate, Lois Cantor. Speaking in hushed tones, Hanlon gently questions the nervous applicant. “Is it a single-family home? He’s on probation for assault and battery?” Pamela is handed a pink piece of paper — her restraining order. Head down, she flees the room quickly. Then, Hanlon must deal with defendants accused of violating the terms of their probation. A probation officer sits beside the judge, detailing the allegations in each case. The first has allegedly failed to attend a court-ordered alcohol treatment program. “I remember [him],” Hanlon says. “We basically have tried to detox him.” Hanlon orders him to serve 60 days. “It’s not a crime to be an alcoholic,” Hanlon admonishes. “It’s a crime to hurt people when you are drinking.” Many of the people who come before Hanlon — both defendants and victims — are familiar to her. The court is designed that way. If it works as expected, the court will serve as a clearinghouse for all domestic violence related action in Dorchester. In 1999, Dorchester judges issued 2,000 restraining orders and handled 1,500 domestic violence cases. The new court will allow Hanlon — along with the assistant district attorneys, the public defenders, the probation officers, and victim’s advocates — to stay in the process all the way through. “I’m seeing people I arraigned. I did the restraining order,” says Hanlon, a former federal prosecutor who wrote Massachusetts’ legal guidelines for DV cases. “It makes it a lot easier to have everyone in one place.” Doing that, she says, decreases the chances that an individual case will get lost in an avalanche of incidents. Hanlon’s chambers are cluttered with the stuff of Massachusetts. A large photo of Robert Kennedy sits next to one of Larry Bird. A quote from Mother Jones is on the wall: “Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living.” “The theory is that judicial oversight can make a difference in making batterers accountable and promoting victim safety,” the judge says. “Having different judges every time a case comes to court can be disastrous,” says victims advocate Cantor, a law professor at Northeastern University. “It is extremely different having everything in one courtroom. [Before,] you could miss cases and you wouldn’t know what was happening. It’s like being in a smaller town.” TAKING IT TO THE STREETS The federal money has allowed the Dorchester probation department to double their allotment of officers, reducing each officer’s current load of 175 cases. Its domestic violence unit is modeled after Boston’s nationally renowned approach to combating youth gang crime. Part of that involves sending probation officers out into the streets of Dorchester, banging on doors, making sure that offenders are respecting court-issued restraining orders. “We’re visiting folks at their home — a lot of them are still trying to live together,” says Bernie Fitzgerald, the unit’s chief. Often, that visit will include a urinalysis for those who are on a drug-related probationary sentence. Fitzgerald says that the program is working. “Women feel more comfortable coming here,” he says. “There are services. They can be protected.” Cantor is a bit more restrained. She’s concerned that the extreme focus on domestic violence could result in an overly aggressive approach toward accused batterers. She worries that victims will be pushed to press charges-something she says often escalates the violence at home instead of dissipating it. In 10 years, she has had two clients murdered. “They did the right thing, and they would up dead,” Cantor says. “The courts, the police, the prosecutors — it’s not their job to think about safety,” she says. Mercedes Tompkins heads the Dorchester Community Roundtable, which has been pushing for changes in the court’s approach to domestic violence for years. “The legal system was one of the last bastions, but there was no systemic way to deal with the issue,” she says. As a result of the Justice Department grant, her office will add one worker, who will be stationed at the courthouse to connect victims with social services. “This project has the opportunity to change how the community views the court,” Tompkins says. “I’m struck by the amount of despair. We have to recognize that people come to a court for a legal remedy, and they can come to the court for a social service remedy.” Adds Boston Police Sgt. Margot Hill, who is using a COPS grant to set up a domestic violence offender database for the department, “Defendants won’t get lost in the system. They can’t hide.” No one in Dorchester knows yet whether the project will yield results. And, they say, it will be hard to know when those happen. Historically, in cases of community domestic violence programs, the number of complaints actually rises as victims become more comfortable coming forward. But other communities in Massachusetts, those that have been receiving DOJ money for years, seem to have gotten their money’s worth. A TOWN TRANSFORMED Wind northwest from Boston, and you’ll find Lowell, a former mill town perched on the Merrimack River. Less than 10 years ago, Lowell was crumbling into ruin. The recession, combined with an expansive heroin trade flowing up from New York, was choking it. “We were up against the wall,” says Edward Davis, the superintendent of the Lowell Police Department. “There was lots of gang activity, shootings. The fear level in the city was high. People were leaving. People were afraid to locate their businesses here.” In 1993, the Lowell Police Department had 159 officers. Then, after Congress passed — at the urging of Reno and the White House — the 1994 crime bill, the city began applying for COPS grants. Lowell received $900,000 over three years — “a significant chunk of change,” Davis says — and hired a total of 40 additional cops. With the redeployment of other personnel made possible by a different DOJ grant, the force expanded to 260 officers. There were strings attached. With the money came a required focus on community policing. Neighborhood substations were established. Local business owners and residents began meeting with the police on a regular basis. “The grants forced us to include the community,” says Brenda Bond, who manages federal grant money for the police department. By 1999, the crime rate in Lowell dropped by 60 percent. As important, Davis says, was the restoration of the image of the department in the city. Before the federal grants, the city was swamped in police abuse suits. “We had a reputation as being heavy-handed. We were getting killed with civil suits,” he says. Now, Lowell receives 30 active grants from the Justice Department, concerning everything from youth programs to police officers for the school system. But Davis is most proud of the fact that the drop in the crime rate spurred economic growth in the community. To see Lowell today is not to see the wasteland of a decade ago. The downtown streets are packed with renovated storefronts. And the improved tax base has allowed the city to cover the tab for the additional officers, Davis says. The federal government is no longer paying police salaries here. That is one answer to a frequent criticism of the DOJ’s seeding of local communities — that Washington gets them hooked on the flow of money and then turns it off. “That might have been an appropriate criticism in the past,” says the DOJ’s Simon. “But we have pushed hard to structure our grants so our grantees understand we aren’t going to be around forever.” The department initiated a new federally sponsored program, called Police Officers/Problem Solvers, which will increase interaction between police officers and residents. The goal will be to increase cultural sensitivity. Among the factors contributing to Lowell’s renaissance has been an influx of Southeast Asians to the town. The city’s largest high school is now 42 percent Cambodian. “There are significant cultural issues here that the average police officer five or six years ago didn’t understand,” Davis says. That day in September, when Reno handed a gavel to Sydney Hanlon, she also came here, to Lowell. Davis says he’s met with Reno a half-dozen times. “She has the ability to understand problems outside Washington,” he says. “She has a down-home connection with people. They really identify with her.” And Davis freely credits the federal government for transforming the city. “The money,” he says, “really bailed us out of an enormous problem.” Not everyone in Lowell, however, is so favorably disposed to the current administration. The day Davis praised Reno’s efforts was the same day the local paper, the Lowell Sun, ran a front-page editorial. For president, it said, we endorse George W. Bush. Why? In part, to reduce “the size of government.” Next week: Janet Reno vs. American Business

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