Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos


In this CVR podcast series, we talk with those doing research and serving victims and learn about the work they've done together.

Tell Us About It, Episode 22: Gender and Victimization Rate in Community Court

A convo with Dr. Alesha Durfee & Paul ThomasSep 20Time: 27:09

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On this episode of Tell Us About It, we speak with Alesha Durfee, PhD, Associate Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University and Paul Thomas, Court Administrator for the Mesa Municipal Court, Mesa, Arizona. Dr. Durfee and Mr. Thomas were partners on a CVR-funded researcher-practitioner fellowship. Their project examined the relationship between gender, victimization, and the need for victim services among defendants in the Mesa Community Court. The Community Court is designed to address chronic, low-level offending that occurs as a result of social problems, including homelessness, mental disorders, and alcohol and drug addiction.

They joined us to discuss the importance of this topic and the value of research, their approach and findings, and how their project benefited from a strong partnership.

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Susan Howley: Welcome to Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos, a podcast from the Center for Victim Research with support from the Office for Victims of Crime. On each episode of Tell Us About It, we talk to researchers and practitioners about their work, the tools being built for use in the field, and how we can work together to build an evidence base for crime victim services. I’m Susan Howley and we’re joined today by Dr. Alesha Durfee and Mr. Paul Thomas. Alesha and Paul, can you introduce yourselves?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: Sure. My name is Dr. Alesha Durfee. I’m an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University and I was the research partner in this project.

Paul Thomas: Good morning, this is Paul Thomas. I’m a Court Administrator for the Mesa Municipal Court in Mesa, Arizona. We’re a large volume court; we deal with a lot of misdemeanor cases and it kind of makes research important to what we do here. And I’ve been the practitioner partner in this project.

Susan Howley: Alesha, can you give us a short summary about this fellowship project? What were you looking for?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: So we have two key research questions. First of all, we wanted to estimate a victimization rate – both lifetime and in the last year – among Mesa community court defendants. And two, we wanted to use a gendered perspective. So we wanted to look at whether victimization rates differed between men and women who are Mesa community court defendants. And this departs from previous research on community courts. Now community courts are holistic, problem-solving courts seeking to link chronic, low-level offenders with a wide array of treatment and resources designed to address the social problems that are associated with their offending in the hopes of reducing recidivism and improving their outcomes. We believe that gender was important because other research by the Urban Institute has shown that gender is a significant predictor of completion of community courts. However, no one before has really looked at the role of gender in-depth in completing community court. We also know from feminist pathways theory that gender often is a predictor of how people become involved in crime. So the feminist pathways theory predicts that many women get involved in this kind of chronic, low-level offending through their own victimization. Therefore, looking at victimization rates and estimating them is an important part of understanding how people end up in community courts.

Susan Howley: Paul, as a court administrator, why did you think it was important to understand the victimization histories and the need for victim services among defendants in community courts?

Paul Thomas: Well it’s obviously important because community court is first a therapeutic court and very much secondarily about crime and punishment and the offense. We find in community court that the defendants who come through community court are typically the homeless, they have mental health issues, they have a lot of issues simply surviving, so to speak, they may get arrested or cited for trespassing, minor shoplifting, those kinds of cases. And so what we’ve done in community court is to really look at that population as more having social challenges and maybe being victimized by their circumstances in life as opposed to anything else. So it’s really not about the criminal aspect, it’s about what can we do to assist and attack some of those circumstances that perpetuate their situation, producing arrest after arrest after arrest. So with that being said, it’s important to the court to understand – like I say, coming from a therapeutic approach – what the status of the defendants are who are truly victims in a general sense and what can we do as a court in terms of resourcing their needs. So the only way we would know what resources are needed and how to respond to their needs would be through some analysis and research, a study as to what is really going on with some of these defendants. So as we’ve learned from this project, the female population among this group has a little more specialized circumstances that need to be taken into consideration when we look at what are we going to do clinically and how are we going to respond to their needs.

Susan Howley: Alesha, what was the approach you took as a researcher to get at these issues?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: Well the first thing I did was actually go and sit in on community court staffing meetings and also I observed community court proceedings to get a feel for what kinds of data we could generate from those community court cases, but also to really figure out what our practitioner needed in order to improve services. And I think that’s an important part of research-practitioner partnerships. So what we did is we decided to do both a quantitative and qualitative data collection effort. So what we did is we designed a two page survey and we gave it to a sample of 106 community court defendants. We had 48 women and we had 58 men. And then we also decided to interview community court defendants in a public location outside of the court in order to understand some of the dynamics linking both their victimization and also their offending.

Susan Howley: Paul, did you have any difficulty selling this project to your fellow court officials?

Paul Thomas: Well not really. I mean Dr. Durfee and I have done some researcher-practitioner partnerships prior to this one, so this was not something that was new to at least our court or our court environment here. And so I think, at least I can only speak for the Mesa court, we’ve done well in breaking down the hesitation or concerns or any anxiety about doing research. And so there wasn’t very much of a barrier or too much judicial anxiety about going forward with this particular project and in looking at what we could learn from the research. Bear in mind, we’re the first community court in the state of Arizona, so the whole thing was a little bit new. And anytime you start something new, you really want the benefit of research and an understanding of what is it you’re doing and what it is you’re trying to accomplish. So the research aspect and this project I think was very appropriate and timely.

Susan Howley: That’s great. Alesha, was it difficult to engage this group of participants?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: It was. There were some things that we learned along the way that really helped us gain access and collect data, and there were some things that were definitely hindrances so some lessons learned. So what worked well was that myself and my research assistant, we would often come about a half an hour early to court and people would show up early for court and it was a great time to give them surveys. We also stayed through most of the court proceedings because when people were waiting to see a public defender or to see the judge, we could give them a quick survey then and that seemed to work out really well. The problem with the project was trying to set up the qualitative interviews. So obviously this is a population that’s highly mobile and difficult to get in contact with between the court date and the scheduled interview. And so I probably had more no shows to the interviews than I did have people to come. So we were hoping to get 20 interviews and unfortunately, in the window we had for data collection, we were only able to get six. Now from that, we were able to get really important data that points to future questions we want to look at. But unfortunately, it’s not the data collection that we were able to do and it may indicate that we need to work with a community partner so that we can get in touch with community court defendants at other service provider locations.

Susan Howley: Now along with what you learned from these defendants, what did the defendants get out of participating, either from taking the survey or from participating in the interview? What did they walk away with?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: When I gave the surveys, I would stop when they disclosed victimization. And I actually had one female community court defendant who disclosed sexual victimization, and she kind of stopped and was quiet for a little bit and told me that she had never told anybody that before. And so I’ve been a domestic violence advocate in the past and I also know a lot of our community resources. So we took community resources with us to the surveys and the interviews and I was able to do some advocacy work with her right there and then in the court. Now I didn’t disclose to the courts or the defendant, but I encouraged her that she thought it was important to the case for them to know about why she was in these circumstances I encouraged her to do that. So being able to provide these defendants with advocacy services on site that they didn’t have access to before was definitely a benefit of the survey. And then for the interviews, I think the opportunity for people to really tell their stories and have someone listen and validate what they were going through and how they were feeling was really important. So people would give very in-depth stories of their lives and just having someone there listening to them, treating them as a whole person instead of the stereotypes that we have about a lot of these defendants and the ways in which they’re treated by the court, I think that was very validating and supportive to them. And in fact, some of the defendants, they had my cell phone number and they would text me about services that they needed and I was able to link them to services after the interview.

Susan Howley: Well that’s great. What did you learn about the victim service needs of this population?

Paul Thomas: From a court point of view – and we’re still I think digesting the results of the project to an extent – that we learned that, with respect to the female population, that they have special circumstances that need to be taken into account and they’re far more likely to be victimized on the street than their male counterparts. And so what we’re learning is that we’ve got to make – from a clinical point of view, what the court’s going to do is make a little bit of a distinction with the female population as opposed to the men on the streets because of their susceptibility to being victimized more often and in different ways. So I think we’re looking at how to accommodate that when we put together a plan for some of these defendants.

Susan Howley: Alesha, what did you learn about the service needs of the males that participated? I know that we often hear that males are less likely to disclose. Did you have any male participants in your survey or your interviews?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: Yes I did. We had actually more men in our surveys than we did women in it and a significant proportion of the interviews were men. I was concerned, at the beginning, that being a woman, the men would not be willing to disclose victimization. And so what I did with the survey is I put those questions at the end so we could develop rapport along the way. And given the distributions in the data, I think a lot of men were really willing to disclose victimization. Interestingly, a lot of the women during this survey would answer the question and then talk about their victimization, so I would take qualitative notes on the survey. The men really didn’t do that quite as much; so they were willing to disclose it but not talk about it in detail. However,, during the interviews possibly because they weren’t in the court environment, they were far more likely to talk about their victimization. What was really interesting is that we looked at seven different types of criminal victimization and we looked at criminal victimization because those are the people who qualify for victim services through the court, either through the police or through the prosecutor’s office. And what we found is men were more likely to have been threatened with a weapon and they were also really likely to have had something stolen the last year. Now having something stolen in the last year doesn’t sound really important to those of us who don’t understand kind of the dynamics of the population of community court defendants. However, for them, often when I say “Have you had an item stolen?” It was something catastrophic. So because they’re homeless, often during the day, they have to stash everything that they have in bags outdoors in a location they think no one will guess that’s hidden. And what they would find is they would go back and their entire cache of items, all their belongings, would be gone and they would be starting over again completely. And so those were actually really important events to them, especially because they would have information about court dates or information about service providers in those things. So they were completely starting over, not just what their belongings but with their knowledge about kind of what services they had to do in order to comply with court requirements. So 72 percent of men had had an item stolen the last year and 88 percent of men had had them stolen in their lifetime. And some of the men said that them being on the street was what led to them being victimized in this way. That they hadn’t experts these types of victimization before they had become homeless or had unstable housing arrangements. For the women, it was really important to look at both domestic violence and sexual assault. So during the interviews, women would tell me that yes their partner was violent – and again, 40 percent of women had experienced an act of domestic violence in the last year, which is a huge rate right. That’s higher than the lifetime victimization rates for the general population. However, they would also talk about the risks they face if they didn’t have a male partner on the streets being just a woman. So one woman, for example, described that she woke up to the sound of a man unzipping her pants, a stranger. And she was able to scare him off, but she was really worried she wouldn’t be able to sleep because that would leave her vulnerable. So they felt like yes they knew their partner was abusive; however, they could manage those risks. So one woman described saying I don’t let him take drugs, I try not to be around him when he’s drinking because he really defends me. And if she could manage the known risk with her partner that would mitigate the risk that she couldn’t manage on the street.

Susan Howley: Wow. It sounds like you got a lot of useful findings out of this that are going to be important for the court. Let’s switch gears for just a moment and talk about your partnership. I understand that the two of you have partnered before. How did you come together for this opportunity?

Paul Thomas: Well Dr. Durfee and I maintain regular contact and communication with each other about what’s going on and activities and different things. And so, I had mentioned to her that we were going to initiate a community court and that immediately I think sparked her interest in how she could be involved in that and the fact that it might open up an avenue to looking at a specialized population that would be somewhat created through community court, because we’re pulling in the homeless and those with mental health issues living on the street. So I think that she saw it as an opportunity, and obviously I did too, because we’ve done prior projects and I’m always interested in what the research tells us. So in as much as we were starting a new kind of program, something a little bit cutting edge and wanting to know as much as we could, it was I think a natural partnership that resulted from the initiation of community court.

Susan Howley: Alesha, how have you been able to maintain a productive partnership with the practitioner?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: I think one of the things that really has helped is that I worked in a number of different roles with practitioners as advocates and so forth when I was in graduate school. So I took those kind of opportunities to really understand what research might mean for practitioners. I think traditionally there’s a little bit of a barrier between academia and practitioners – think for example if you’re a practitioner and you want to read current research, you have to pay $35 per article, which that in and of itself, the safeguarding of academic knowledge through the pricing of the journals, that really creates a barrier between research and practitioners. I think also Paul has been just a wonderful partner in this process. So we were awarded, in 2015, a National Institute of Justice researcher-practitioner partnership and what we did is look at domestic violence protection orders and it was a three year project. And during that time, we were really able to get to know each other. I was able to get to know his staff. He gave me an office in the Mesa community court. I was at court as much as possible and that really helped. Cementing that partnership and having a productive partnership in that realm and having those built in relationships already allowed us to take this Center for Victim Research grant and hit the ground running and really be able to quickly design data collection instruments and leverage that existing partnership that we had and that comfort and familiarity with each other and that trust that you build up in partnerships, so that we could collect the kind of data that we did and do the full project in a very short amount of time. And so I think that when practitioners open their doors and when researchers go to practitioners and say “What do you need? What questions do you have?” And allow them to help design the data collection instruments and listen to them about the best ways in which to collect data. I think that’s when you form the best types of partnerships, when it’s something where neither party is really privileged in the relationship or in fact the practitioner needs might be privileged in the relationship because they’re the ones often who are driving those types of questions.

Susan Howley: Paul, do you have anything to add? What would you tell your peers who were looking for a research partner? How would they find someone as good as yours?

Paul Thomas: Obviously I would recommend Dr. Durfee in any circumstance. But the key thing for courts, and it may be cultural or whatever, but by design courts are independent and separate and they tend to be insular. Judges don’t like to be too open about things because they shouldn’t be susceptible to influences and all these external influences. So I think, more or less, it’s a cultural barrier you have to knock down and say look here’s what research can do for you, here’s how research can make what you do even better. And it’s all about a better rendering of justice for those who come through the courts anyway. And we should strive to make that more evidence based and make decisions and set up programs from that basis rather than what we think might work or not work. So what we’ve tried to do here, and our partnership and relationship at least through the Mesa court, is to demonstrate that courts can be open and engage in research projects and engage with those who do the research and are the best at what they do because courts typically don’t do this. We run statistics. We run reports. We do these kinds of things, but we’re not in the business of creating in-depth, research-based studies like you would in the academic world. So as Dr. Durfee and I talked from the very beginning, one of my goals was to try to demonstrate that courts didn’t need to be fearful of someone coming in and doing research and informing the court about what the facts are, what the research tells us, and then from that maybe develop better policies, better procedures, better processes and trying to serve those defendants that come through in a more productive, practical way. So I think we’ve had some success in doing that because this relationship’s gone on for a few years now. We’ve had a couple of projects under our belt. We’ve produced results. We’ve presented those results in different venues and at the Supreme Court. So I think that’s taken a big step forward in demonstrating that courts don’t have to be overly anxious about research and what the research might tell us, and judges don’t necessarily have to be so guarded about their independence. And so in that regard, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of demonstrating that these relationships can work and that other courts don’t need to be so concerned about engaging in a research-practitioner partnership.

Susan Howley: Well Paul, you talked about the practical benefits of this kind of research for the courts. How will you use the findings of this study or who do you plan to share the findings of this study with?

Paul Thomas: Well again, it depends on what opportunities we have to actually share it. I think the Arizona Supreme Court is well aware of what we do here. I think, based on prior projects, Dr. Durfee has a lot of credibility with the Arizona Supreme Court. So I would expect that there’ll be meetings of the different policymaking committees at the Supreme Court that would be interested in this research and the results and what the results tell us. So we’ll take every opportunity to share that information through the court community, as we have opportunities to do so. Internally, what we’ll do is I know that Dr. Durfee and I will probably do a presentation to the judges here at the Mesa court and some key staff and others that might be involved directly with community court. And this will inform them very much about what we need to think about from a clinical side, those circumstances that are experienced by the homeless population, especially the different victimization that occurs with women, and how we can cooperate accommodating that when we look at what we want to do to assist and help a lot of these individuals coming through community court. So that has yet to occur, but we certainly have the basis for it. And I’m anxious to move forward with that part of it because it will make a difference in the services that we connect with different victims coming through and I think it’ll hopefully cause to the service providers and court staff and judges to look at things a little bit differently, a little bit more clinically, based on the research that we’ve done with this project.

Susan Howley: Alesha, as a researcher, where do you go with these findings and to further flesh out the questions that were raised here?

Dr. Alesha Durfee: Well I think first of all, since we have this great wealth of data and we do have a final report that does a broad brush of the results of the study on the Center for Victim Research website, but it will be disseminating this information to both practitioners and policymakers but also academics so that we can inform the body of literature on community courts and also on domestic violence. So I think we have to think about what is the best way to distribute this information to policymakers and practitioners? And Paul will be invaluable in that process, as will his staff. So definitely I’ll be giving some presentations to audiences here, whether that be at Mesa Municipal Court or whether that be in front of the Arizona Supreme Court, but hopefully giving information that will be helpful for them when they’re designing these types of community courts but also thinking about screening for victimization and victim services. Now I’ve done a brief review of the academic literature and I’ve also sent some requests out on list serves, and as far as I know there really isn’t a victimization instrument being used among defendants who are not facing domestic violence charges. So we do a lot of domestic violence screenings, but usually that’s with the victims of abusers who are currently facing criminal charges. So this really hasn’t been done before. And so the next step will also be how do we develop a victimization instrument that will be fairly quick and easy to conduct for the staff as they go through and process some of these very complicated cases, and then how do we add enough flexibility into that instrument so that could be use among other types of community courts. Again, the data that is presented in the final report on the Center for Victim Research website, it is just kind of a broad brush of what we found with the findings. So we have a lot of additional information that’s not included in the report, so we’ll be working on some academic articles to be published in peer-reviewed journals that will talk about the results of the study in much more detail.

Susan Howley: Well, I want to thank you both. This project has been so interesting. And thank you both also for sharing your tips about how to have a successful partnership. I think we’ve learned an awful lot about that. And I am really looking forward to the development of a screening tool that can be used in community courts around the country. So this has given me so much to look forward to. Thank you both.

Paul Thomas: Well, thank you.

Dr. Alesha Durfee: Thanks for having us.