An Update on Caitlyn’s Courage DV Prevention Pilot

Last year, the General Assembly appropriated $3.5 million from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the Department of Public Safety to be used as a grant for Caitlyn’s Courage, Inc. See S.L. 2020-80 as modified by S.L. 2020-78. The non-profit was to use the funds to conduct pilot programs in at least nine judicial districts through which it would provide GPS electronic monitoring devices to be used as a condition of pretrial release for defendants charged with crimes related to stalking, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and violations of a domestic violence protective order. The legislation directed Caitlyn’s Courage to report back to the General Assembly on the effectiveness of the programs and on recommendations for expansion. This post discusses the Caitlyn’s Courage programs, reviews highlights from its April 2021 report to the legislature (“the Report”), and cites a legislative proposal to allocate substantially more funding to expand this type of programming statewide.

What is Caitlyn’s Courage? Caitlyn’s Courage is a non-profit corporation founded in October 2019 to provide education about and assist victims of domestic violence. The corporation was formed by the family of Caitlyn Whitehurst, who was shot and killed in May 2019 by her former boyfriend who then killed himself.

Pilot programs. The pilot programs use a two-piece GPS monitoring system, consisting of an ankle bracelet worn by the defendant and a paired portable GPS device carried by the victim.  If the defendant enters within a set distance of the victim, the victim receives a text message. The GPS devices also notify the victim if the defendant is within three hundred feet of an exclusion zone, such as the victim’s home or workplace. Caitlyn’s Courage contracted with Tarheel Monitoring to set up and provide the GPS devices, to train participants, and to maintain a call center that notifies victims when defendants enter restricted zones. These services are provided without charge to the defendant, victim, or the State.

By April, programs had been implemented in 15 of the state’s 43 district court districts. The programs, which differed by district, were designed by local implementation teams led by the chief district judge. Judges and court personnel, including any pretrial services program, may be granted access to the data generated by the GPS monitoring system to monitor a defendant’s compliance with court orders. The Report contains Memoranda of Understanding between participating districts and Tarheel Monitoring as well as exemplar procedures used by one county.

The results. Caitlyn’s Courage reported that 308 defendants were enrolled in pilot programs from December 2020 through March 2021, and that 37 of them were arrested “for exclusion zone violations, tampering with the device, and/or battery violations.” Report at 25. The group surmised that this relatively low arrest rate indicated that defendants are less likely to violate court orders when monitored by GPS. As an example of the program’s potential to reduce lethality, the report recounted an instance in Cumberland County in which a victim, whom a monitored defendant had threatened to kill, called 911 after receiving a GPS alert that the defendant was nearing her residence. The defendant was arrested for violating conditions of pretrial release. The report also noted that the technology had detected incidents in which the victim purposefully made personal contact with the defendant.

Reviews. On one hand, some questioned the amount of CARES Act funding spent to implement the program, criticizing Caitlyn’s Courage for purchasing GPS monitors rather than renting them, for pre-paying for monitoring, and for paying a high rate for monitoring. Reviews from participating districts have, on the other hand, been positive. Caitlyn Courage’s report to the General Assembly included statements from several chief district court judges extolling the benefits of the program. One judge noted benefits for defendants as well as victims, stating that the ability to monitor the defendant’s whereabouts might eliminate the need for a secure bond and could protect the defendant from false accusations regarding his or her whereabouts and actions.

Recommendations. The Report recommended that the program be implemented statewide and managed by Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), rather than the current structure which places management authority in the Department of Public Safety. It also recommended that the General Assembly appropriate funds to the East Carolina University Department of Criminal Justice to analyze data collected by the program.

Proposed appropriation. The state budget bill (S 105) approved by the House last week would appropriate $27 million over two years for a statewide domestic violence notification system administered by the AOC that contains the features of the current Caitlyn’s Courage program. The News and Observer reported that a domestic violence prevention group and state lawmaker have questioned the amount of the appropriation, which, according to the policy director for the domestic violence prevention group, nearly matches the amount spent on all other domestic violence services.