The Days After

Nearly 20 percent of all cases brought before city court judges Francie Bouillion and Douglas Saloom are related to domestic violence.

"I think that's a pretty serious problem," Bouillion said. "That's just in this court - that's not the rest of the parish."

But the maximum sentence the judges can hand out is 30 days in jail, even for repeat offenders. Saloom said for some crimes, "30 days is an insignificant period of time." And it's something that both judges would like to see changed.

"It drives Judge Bouillion and I crazy, but we've got to live with it," at least for now, Saloom said.

Before the city and parish governments consolidated in 1996, the law allowed city court judges to hand out sentences of up to six months.

Saloom said the city attorney's office is drafting an ordinance for the City-Parish Council that will revert or update many of the ordinances that were changed during consolidation. If it passes, it could mean stiffer penalties for domestic abusers and a uniform charge for domestic battery, which Saloom said would help in keeping track of offenders and domestic abuse statistics.

"I think we both agree that, from our perspective, that it is much better for us to have a greater discretion in sentencing," Bouillion said.

The judges can order the batterers into treatment programs instead of jail, but for some batterers, the prospect of 30 days in jail isn't much of an incentive to try to change their behavior, they said.

"Some people would rather go to jail for 30 days than do the programs for six months," Saloom said.

In city court, the two judges, who have a combined 20 years of experience, handle domestic abuse cases classified as misdemeanors. The two most common charges are simple battery, which means a physical attack or any form of unwanted touching, and simple assault, which means a threat.

More serious charges such as aggravated battery, which means a weapon was involved, and other felony charges are handled by the parish court, where offenders can face tougher penalties.

But both city court judges are aware the offenders they see one day on simple battery charges could later commit a more serious offense.

When Bouillion heard about the murder of Jennifer Herring, who was allegedly killed by her ex-boyfriend Francis Vallery Jr., she said she immediately looked through her files to see if Herring or Vallery had been in her court before.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she realized neither of them had.

It easily could have been different.

Vallery was arrested in December 2004 and faced charges of simple battery against Herring, but by the time of the murder, three months later, the case had not yet come to court. Vallery is now in Lafayette Parish Correctional Center awaiting trial in parish court on a first-degree murder charge.

"As a conscientious judge, any time you hear of a tragic event, whether it's domestic or an OWI crash, you always go back and see if that person came before you, and if so, is there anything you could have done differently, or is there anything that you missed," Saloom said. "That's how you hopefully prevent the same thing from happening twice."

Every Monday inside city court, either Bouillion or Saloom oversee arraignments, knowing that any one of the victims in the cases before them could be the next Jennifer Herring.

During two separate weeks in April, the dockets of both judges were overloaded with domestic cases.

In Saloom's court, city prosecutor Gary Haynes brought more than 20 domestic-related cases - where charges ranged from disturbing the peace by fighting to simple battery (domestic).

In Bouillion's court, assistant city prosecutor Marcus Allen brought more than 10 domestic-related cases before her.

Once each court began, it ran like an assembly line.

For the first-time offenders who pleaded not guilty to a simple battery domestic charge, a trial date was set. Those who plead guilty or no contest were ordered to pay a $220 fine and were sentenced to 30 days in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. In the majority of cases, the jail sentence was suspended and offenders served no time behind bars if they agreed to attend treatment classes.

Most were ordered to attend either anger management classes or the Family Violence Intervention Program, which is a class specifically designed for domestic abusers.

"That's really what we're after is to try to get people who have committed these crimes not to do it again," Saloom said.

The judges can later impose the jail sentence if the offender fails to attend classes or if another report of abuse is made.

"The goal always has to be a combination of rehabilitation / punishment," Saloom said.