AUGUSTA — For the next five years, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office will share data with researchers studying the accuracy of a tool that’s meant to gauge the risk that a man who has allegedly committed domestic violence will do so again.

All Maine law enforcement agencies have been using that tool, the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment, since early 2015.

After every report of violence by a man against a female domestic partner, responding officers answer 13 questions about the suspect and alleged victim that are meant to determine the suspect’s risk of re-offending, according to the Canadian center that developed the assessment.

The 13 risk factors include whether the suspect has any prior convictions for domestic assault, whether the victim fears future assaults and whether the couple has more than one child together. The resulting score is then considered at different points in the criminal justice process. For example, judges setting bail for defendants will occasionally inquire about his score on the assessment, or a prosecutor deciding whether to seek electronic monitoring for a defendant may consider the score.

Though studies performed outside the U.S. have demonstrated the value of the Ontario assessment, the tool has never been validated by studies in this country, Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon said in a news release.

That’s why his department has partnered with researchers at Arizona State University who are studying data taken from the Ontario assessment in five U.S. jurisdictions, Reardon said. Two other Maine agencies are also contributing to the study: the Saco and Bangor police departments. The research is using funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

“The university selected the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office because of our commitment to reducing intimate partner violence and because our law enforcement deputies consistently utilize the (Ontario assessment) sheet to capture information at the scene of all domestic violence crimes,” Reardon said in the news release. “The consistency of our data collection provides researchers with a complete data set from which to conduct their study.”

The study will use 61 cases of domestic violence that were investigated by the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office between January 2015 and June 2016 as a benchmark, Reardon said.

The 61 cases all resulted in convictions on charges related to domestic violence, Reardon said. Those convictions are public records, he added.

Going forward, the department will continue to send information about the offenders involved in those cases, including any new convictions. At one-, three- and five-year intervals, the researchers will compare the benchmark numbers with any new data, Reardon said.

In order to protect the identities of the victims, the sheriff’s office will not provide any identifying information to researchers, instead assigning unique numbers to each person involved, Reardon said.

Domestic violence is a particular concern in Maine, where it typically accounts for about 50 percent of homicides every year. A commission that was formed to study the problem recommended the Legislature mandate the use of the Ontario assessment by Maine’s police officers, which lawmakers did in 2012.

Proponents of the Ontario assessment refer to research that demonstrated offenders with the highest score on the assessment were 14 times more likely to re-offend than those in the lowest risk category, according to the Battered Women’s Justice Project.

Some lawyers, though, are skeptical of the tool.

“It seems to be based on voodoo science,” said Darrick Banda, a defense attorney who handles many domestic violence cases and also once served as a prosecutor. “It really is sort of irrelevant in terms of figuring out what needs to happen in any given case.”

Though Banda agreed with the relevance of several questions in the assessment, he said others were arbitrary, including whether an offender has been sentenced to jail for 30 days or more in the past. Banda argued someone could have been in jail simply for theft or operating without a license, which wouldn’t necessarily indicate a risk of domestic violence. He also questioned the relevance of how many children an alleged offender has.

Another defense attorney, Lisa Whittier, agreed with Banda about the relevance of those questions and said data from the Ontario assessments can be unreliable, because they often come from alleged victims and can be weighted against the defendant.

“It’s only as accurate as the reporter is,” she said.

But Reardon said he supports the tool’s use, especially given Maine’s high incidence of homicides related to domestic violence, and pointed to the research from abroad that validated its accuracy.

“To me, it’s a common sense approach,” he said in a Friday interview. “Frankly, I wish we had this 25 years ago.”

Reardon also said there are subtle differences between U.S. and Canadian culture that warrant further study of the tool.

“For us, it’s a relatively easy lift for something that could have a great impact,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we do it?”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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