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Chris Brown's Sentencing for Beating Rihanna: Let's Focus on What Really Matters

Did the court let Brown off too easy for beating girlfriend Rihanna? The author says that's the wrong question.

UPDATE: Reports that Chris Brown would appear on Larry King Live this week proved to be untrue, but Hollyscoop is reportingthat he may appear on the show next week. For more on this topic, see AlterNet's Tana Ganeva on Chris Brown's apology.

Today, millions of us will watch R&B star Chris Brown chat up Larry King after he receives his sentence for brutally beating his very famous girlfriend. Smart money says that King will put to him the question that captivated so many of us when his plea deal was announced in June: did the court let him off too easy? Once again, it will be the wrong question.

It's natural to want to see abusers punished. It's certainly preferable to watching them get off scot-free (as do over half those arrested for domestic violence every year, according to the National Institute of Justice). But if there's any silver lining to this whole awful incident, it's the way it's put relationship violence back in our public conversation. Given how infrequently that happens, we should be doing more than just be asking what kind of sentence Chris Brown deserves. We need to ask what kind of sentence will help ensure that he -- and men all over the country just like him -- never beats another woman.

Abuser education programs got their start over 30 years ago. In that time, we've learned a lot about the factors that influence whether an abuser will reform or re-offend.

"All the research that's been done points to one consistent finding about batterer intervention, which is that the longer people stay in batterer intervention programs, the better they do," says David Adams, co-founder and Co-Director of Massachusetts-based Emerge, the very first batterer intervention in the country. That's good news for Brown, who was sentenced in California, the strictest state in the nation when it comes to length of mandated abuser education. He'll be required to complete an entire year's worth.

But what really may make the difference for Brown is a factor most programs sorely lack -- accountability. While all eyes will be on Brown as he completes his sentence, that's hardly the case for most abusers. In fact, few jurisdictions in the country have systems in place to enforce their own sentences when it comes to batterer intervention programs, resulting in a national non-completion rate of about 50 percent. Given that abusers who fail to complete their court-mandated programs are more than twice as likely to reoffend than those who do, that's a gap which urgently needs addressing.

Why aren't we doing better? "There's a surprising lack of consistency across courts," says Adams, who works with judges and prosecutors to educate them about their key role in these cases. From state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, accountability depends all too often on individual judges "getting it" or not. Some jurisdictions are models of judicial follow-through, carefully tracking each convicted batterer's progress on their sentence -- and those districts have been proven to powerfully reduce rates of new violence by convicted batterers.

But other judges don't even get to the point of tracking, declining to comply with their own state laws mandating certified batterer intervention programs for domestic violence offenders, and instead sending abusers to uncertified, shorter (and far, far less effective) anger management programs. Few of these judges ever face consequences, so we can hardly expect the batterers they sentence to be held to account.

There's a solution to this problem that is guaranteed to save the lives of women -- a standardized program in each state that would enforce our already-existing mandatory sentencing laws, track the progress of batterers through their programs, and refer those that drop out back to the courts to face increasing consequences. But none of this is likely to happen if states keep defunding the issue as many have in recent years (and nowhere more egregiously than Brown's home state of California, which just cut a devastating 100 percent of all state funding to domestic violence prevention and services).