A year later, the verdict on Amanda's Law is still out

One year in, use of GPS tracking to alert victims spotty

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 10, 2011 

Steve Nunn's guilty plea in the killing of Amanda Ross closes the high-profile criminal case. What's less clear is the verdict on a domestic violence prevention law that bears Ross's name.

One year after Amanda's Law took effect, the centerpiece of the bill — global positioning system tracking of domestic violence offenders that would alert victims when offenders get too close — has gained little traction.

The reasons are myriad: lack of funding, lack of access to technology and lack of willpower by elected officials, some advocates say.

The law's final version also changed the bill's original intent, limiting its effect, say experts and advocates.

A year without much progress should be a wake-up call, said Marcia Roth, director of the Mary Byron Project in Louisville, which works to end domestic violence.

"This has become law, therefore we should use it to enhance victim safety, not just say we're doing something to enhance victim safety," Roth said. "Otherwise, it's just empty words."

Amanda's Law allows counties to implement GPS tracking in domestic-violence cases if certain violations of protective orders occur, such as assault, burglary or kidnapping. However, counties already had the ability to implement such systems in those instances.

For example, Fayette and Jefferson counties were using the technology in criminal cases to monitor domestic-violence offenders before they went to trial.

Still, advocates had hoped the law would help nudge other counties around the state to follow suit. But counties have shied away, citing funding issues or technological hurdles.

In Pike County, the cell phone coverage needed to operate a GPS tracking system varies wildly, said Pike Family Court Judge Larry Thompson.

"We haven't found a provider for that uniform coverage," he said, "so we haven't been able to set up a system."

Other counties have been waiting for the state to provide a list of approved vendors. That request for proposals from vendors was issued by the Finance and Administration Cabinet on July 1, spokeswoman Cindy Lanham said.

The cabinet formed a committee to look at different options, which took almost a year.

"They wanted to make sure they got it right, to meet all the different needs," Lanham said.

Money's a problem

Even in counties where GPS tracking systems are available, the road has been less than smooth.

In Warren County, the court system has contracted with the jail to use its GPS tracking system in domestic violence cases. But the fiscal court has yet to approve funding, said Family Court Judge Margaret Huddleston.

"That's one of the issues, but at least we're in the works," Huddleston said.

"I think the law made some very good changes," she added. "I think the statute regarding the GPS tracking system has a lot of hurdles for the court to jump through, so that's why it's difficult to implement."

Under Amanda's Law, the offender is supposed to pay for any GPS tracking ordered by the court. But inevitably, indigent defendants won't be able to pay.

State officials hope that savings from an overhaul of the criminal code earlier this year will help, but those savings have yet to be seen.

A high-profile effort to kick-start the law with federal funds also fell short.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., held a news conference to herald $875,000 in federal appropriations he hoped would help counties implement Amanda's Law. But that plan was harpooned by a ban on earmarks.

"The Amanda's Law appropriation passed several major hurdles, and in our experience, overcoming these hurdles meant that this appropriation was in stone, short of an extraordinary event," said Chandler spokeswoman Jennifer Krimm. "The extraordinary event happened: the Senate leadership unexpectedly flip-flopped on direct appropriations at the very last minute, stripping all appropriations from the budget."

Some of that money would have been used in Fayette County, where officials tried to set up a pilot program for Amanda's Law that could be used across the state. It was never implemented because of lack of funding, said Mary Houlihan, director of victim services for the commonwealth's attorney's office.

"We found out there were many things already in place," Houlihan said, including GPS monitoring by pretrial services for domestic violence offenders in criminal court.

"My feeling is that all across the state there's all sorts of people working and trying to improve the criminal and civil response to domestic violence, but all those people are waiting for an answer that works, and nothing's been provided statewide," Houlihan said.

Questionable effect

Funding aside, significant questions remain about how much of an effect the GPS tracking provision in Amanda's law will ever have.

The law that emerged in 2010 was very different from what House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, first proposed.

Ultimately, lawmakers approved a bill that wouldn't have helped Ross.

In March 2009, she had obtained a yearlong protective order against Nunn in Fayette County Family Court after she reported that he had hit her in the face. Nunn also was charged with domestic violence assault.

Six months later, Nunn, a former state lawmaker from Glasgow, shot Ross early in the morning near her downtown Lexington residence.

Under Stumbo's proposal of Amanda's Law, the victim could request GPS monitoring as soon as there was a domestic violence charge filed in civil or criminal court. After a risk assessment was done of the offender, a family court judge could decide to order the tracking.

The Republican-led Senate altered the bill to say an offender must commit a "substantial violation" of a protective order, including kidnapping, terroristic threatening or assault, before GPS tracking can be requested.

As a result, Amanda's Law will rarely, if ever, be used in civil courts. A "substantial" violation of a domestic violence order will almost always move the matter from family court into criminal court, where GPS monitoring was available before Amanda's Law was approved.

"We're not completely satisfied with the results," Ross family spokesman Dale Emmons said of the current law. "There is a compelling need in our courts for additional tools to help victims of domestic violence, and that continues to be the case today."

Some success

Experts say some pieces of Amanda's Law have been more successful.

For example, one part of the law requires judges to look at statewide criminal backgrounds to determine whether a domestic violence offender has a pattern of other violent behavior, if the petitioner requests it.

Since Amanda's Law was enacted last July, the Administrative Office of the Courts, or AOC, has processed 25,843 background checks.

"When judges get all the information before them, they have a clearer picture of what they're dealing with, especially if there's a long history of violence," said Darlene Thomas, director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program.

In addition, AOC officials said three charges have been filed against offenders who have trespassed near or in a domestic violence shelter, which became a crime under the legislation.

Advocates say they hope state lawmakers, the courts and law enforcement continue to move forward so Amanda's Law becomes a seamless part of domestic violence prevention.

"It's not happening, because the law may be ahead of our ability to implement," Thomas said.

Stumbo acknowledged that progress has been slow but said new laws with new technology take a while to catch on.

"The courts and law enforcement are slow to change," he said. "My concern is it will take another tragedy to really get even victims to start requesting this and for judges to start responding."

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