In 1989, when Puerto Rico’s feminist movement fought a battle inside the halls of the Capitol to get Act 54 passed, one of the concessions it had to make was to include in the legislation the possibility that the aggressors would avoid jail time if they participated in a reeducation, or diversion program, to reeducate themselves over their sexist behaviors. After completing the program, the conviction is removed from their criminal record, as if they had never been guilty.
“I remember perfectly the conversations between those of us who were there lobbying for the legislation, that we didn’t know very well how successful these programs could be,” said María Dolores Fernós, one of the promoters of the Prevention and Intervention with Domestic Violence Act, and who later became the first director of the Women’s Advocate Office.
The concerns that the feminists had about reeducation programs three decades ago are still valid today, as there is no evidence to support their effectiveness and the entity responsible for their supervision, the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors Act, which was created in 2000, has been mostly idle, while not producing a single report on the programs.
Neither the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR), the Courts Administration, nor the Women’s Advocate Office provided information to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) on the number of participants, levels of re-offense, or success rates in re-educating aggressors. The lack of a curriculum for programs that promote real change, that allow the victims to take classes together with their aggressors, and the absence of continuous education for the therapists are part of the problem.
After Fernós stepped down as Women’s Advocate in 2007, the Board spent long periods without carrying out its duties, since many of the times it was convened for meetings, there was no quorum, as confirmed by current Women’s Advocate Lersy Boria, the director of the Domestic Violence Shelters Network, Vilmarie Rivera, and DCR staff who spoke with the CPI. However, no one has been able to specify the Board’s down times.
According to Act 49 of 2000 that created the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors, the Board will hold regular monthly meetings, consisting of seven members, and five members of the Board will constitute a quorum.
Currently there are only two active members, according to DCR — Advocate Lersy Boria, who is the chairwoman, and Maritza Maldonado Rivera, who represents the Department of the Family. The positions of representative of the Department of Justice and the Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services (ASSMCA, in Spanish) are vacant, as are the two positions for Psychology and Social Work professionals since their terms expired.
The law also says that the Board must have an individual administrator. The CPI asked Corrections who held that position and the response was “the Board has not complied with this legal requirement.” Corrections couldn’t either say what the Board’s assigned budget is, since the law establishes that “the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will cover the funds needed to carry out the purposes of this Act.”
Although the Board has not carried out its duties, the courts have continued to resolve Act 54 cases through the diversion mechanism, while the reeducation and retraining programs for aggressors continued to run without oversight, the CPI found.
In addition to being a pre-trial alternative due to a criminal process, in 2012, the Legislative Assembly amended Act 54 of 1989 so that the court could, at its discretion, order a person against whom a protection order has been issued to participate for 30 hours in one of these reeducation programs for offenders.
The murder of Andrea Ruiz Costas last April, once again raised questions about these provisions of Act 54 and the way they are carried out.
Miguel Ocasio Santiago, confessed murderer of Andrea Ruiz Costas and accused of the femicide, was in one of these reeducation programs following a criminal process that he faced in 2012, for assault, threat and attempted murder, in violation of Act 54. As established by the law, his criminal record was cleared after the resolution of that case, which allowed him to get a job as a security guard.
Proliferation of unsupervised programs
Diversion programs for aggressors began to emerge shortly after the approval of Act 54 of 1989. Before that there were specialized treatment centers for problematic substance abuse, but there was no structured program for aggressors.
“They started to emerge, privately. Some very good, with excellent, well-trained professionals, who developed their programs and recruited personnel to offer the services. And the courts then received a list of those programs. When a case came in which they had to refer to a pre-trial program, they turned to the list and, I don’t know using what criteria, they referred the person to that entity,” Fernós said about the path that paved the way for that article of the legislation.
Flawed initiatives to evaluate reeducation programs
The Commission on Women’s Affairs, which preceded the Women’s Advocate Office, created guidelines for these programs, but it was not until December 2000 that outgoing Governor Pedro Rosselló signed Act 449. The Board was under the umbrella of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The legislation itself recognizes that, 10 years after Act 54, there was no agency in charge of certifying the programs and providing follow-up to achieve their effectiveness.
It was established that the Regulatory Board would be composed of seven members appointed by the governor, evaluated, and confirmed by the Senate. From the beginning, identifying people available to assume responsibility and face the Senate’s scrutiny was a problem, Fernós said. In addition, each member’s term expires at different times, so vacancies are a constant, as is currently the case.
When asked how many aggressors have benefited from diversion programs under Act 54, the Courts Administration relied on the way the law is drafted so as not to provide the information requested by the CPI, although they handle the files of offenders who participate in the reeducation programs.
“Although the Judiciary collects various statistical data on Act 54 at the aggregate level, we identified that the lawmaker has established a confidentiality system for reeducation case files,” the director of the Courts Press Office, Daniel Rodríguez León, responded to the CPI’s request.
“The Regulatory Board of Act 54’s reeducation programs, under the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has also provided for the confidentiality of the files of the participants,” he added.
The Courts Administration’s annual statistical records show that between fiscal years 2010 and 2020, a total of 30,229 criminal cases have been submitted to the Puerto Rico courts under Act 54. In that same period, 28,950 have been resolved in convictions, acquittals, have been filed, and other types of resolutions, but the agency did not reveal how many of those cases were resolved after the completion of a pretrial diversion program. Likewise, the agency refused to reveal how many people were convicted for failing to comply with the conditions of the reeducation program.
The DCR said it only has data from its own Coexistence without Violence reeducation program, in which 1,044 people have participated in the last 10 years. The rest of the programs are private, and the aggressor must pay for each class, at a cost that hovers at around $30. The minimum time ordered by a court is one year, or 52 weeks, so the total cost of the program is about $1,560.
There’s no confidence in reeducation programs
Based on the experience of legal advocate Ángela Jiménez, who accompanies victims of domestic violence in court proceedings, “in most cases, they [the aggressors] accept guilt just to be considered for a diversion program.”
Jiménez doesn’t trust reeducation programs. Neither does Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, executive director of Proyecto Matria and member of the Committee for the Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education of Gender Violence (PARE, in Spanish), created in January by executive order to address the state of emergency due to gender violence in Puerto Rico.
“The impression that we have is that it’s not really a reeducation process. In fact, if we had a participant to whom they said ‘look, we’re proposing to negotiate for the aggressor to go to a reeducation program,’ we would most likely say ‘don’t accept that’ because we know that it has no real effect on the aggressor’s behavior. We, as service providers, wouldn’t be confident about the safety of our participants if the result in court were to send that aggressor to a reeducation program,” said Pagán Jiménez, who insists on prevention as the best strategy against gender violence.
No data for three decades
The Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors Act establishes that “the Board will submit an Annual Report to the Governor of Puerto Rico, showing its work and recommendations; reporting on the number of applications received, as well as licenses and certifications issued; expense and income accounts; and a record of the per diems reimbursed to the members of the Board.”
The CPI requested these reports from Corrections and the response was that “after doing a search in the files with documents belonging to the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs located in our office, no annual report presented by the Board to the Governor of Puerto Rico was found.”
The agency confirmed that it does not even have reports for the period since the Board was reactivated from late 2018 to now.
There are 17 private Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors across 13 municipalities. A list of currently licensed programs should be public and accessible on the Corrections website, as required by regulation. However, this media outlet had to request it from the agency, which took more than a month to release it.
While Fernós was the Women’s Advocate and member of the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors, in the early 2000s, she remembers visiting one of these programs and finding that there was nothing. “An empty place, where a man greeted us and told us that they were trying to set it up, but that was already on the list.” Another program, she said, was about “a lady in a basement who received participants on her own, with no curriculum or staff.”
Between 2015 and 2017, Hogar Nueva Mujer, which houses women and their children survivors of domestic violence, wanted to address the concerns of some of its participants who expressed dissatisfaction and fear that their aggressors were in pretrial diversion programs that fell short of their goal.
“They [the victims] believed that, to a certain extent, the aggressor would be freed, absolved of all guilt, by going through a reeducation program. As these programs were not supervised, the aggressor remained in control of the situation because the victim continued to feel fear, having to readjust her life and having to live knowing that this person was in the free community and that she, in some cases, was being stalked,” said Vilmarie Rivera, director of the Hogar Nueva Mujer, located in the center of the island.
In partnership with the Carlos Albizu University’s Instituto Tercera Misión, between 2015 and 2017, conducted an investigation that evaluated the oversight of reeducation programs and discovered that the Board had been inactive for more than two years and that the Regulation for Evaluation and Licensing of the Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors, dating from 2006, had not been revised in a decade.
They also concluded that the needs of LGBTT people were not met, that the evaluation to obtain licenses to establish a program was erratic, and that the continuing education training that the facilitating staff received were focused on providing support services to victims of domestic violence, but not in intervention with aggressors. In addition, the same curriculum was applied in a generic way to all participants.
“The same shirt does not fit the same way on every aggressor. Someone who was found guilty of psychological abuse, compared to someone who committed physical restraint — which are two different articles within Act 54 — show different levels of violence,” said Rivera, who is also the president of the Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelters Network.
The group suggested evaluating each participant, also considering the problematic use of substances, and then offering workshops specific to their profile.
In 2018, the group recommended updating the content of the programs considering current scientific evidence, analyzing the content in comparison with the guidelines of other jurisdictions, discussing the results with providers before granting a license, and establishing a requirement for ongoing training for reeducation program providers.
Inaction is acknowledged
In December 2018, then Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Erick Rolón, announced that Governor Ricardo Rosselló had constituted the Board. Rolón said in a press release back then that, “this Board was not constituted for years, in part due to the obstacles that the law presents for recruitment.”
Advocate Boria said that in 2019, the board began meeting and visiting the programs, requesting the status of operating licenses and revoking some of them.
“What I came across was extremely alarming, extremely dangerous. Even though there is legislation from 2000, that there was a regulation in 2006, as of 2018, there was no suitable, safe, accurate oversight and much less was it providing statistics on absolutely anything,” Boria told the CPI.
One of the aspects that she said most affected her was meeting victims who were taking the reeducation program classes together with their aggressors.
In August 2019, Boria made some of her efforts public. She said they visited 19 programs. Seven were granted a permanent license, 10 were given a 30-day provisional license to meet the requirements, and two were closed because they were not fulfilling the requirements.
“Of 26 programs that were established as reeducation programs, only one had a valid license,” she said about those that were operating at that time. Today, there are 17 licensed programs.
Then, the Board began reviewing the 2006 regulations. The new version has been in effect since January of that year.
How is a participant’s transformation determined?
Thirty-one years after Act 54 and 21 since the creation of the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors, Puerto Rico government agencies have no answer to this question.
“When we reviewed the programs, they didn’t have statistics regarding the effectiveness of the reeducation, how many [aggressors] were affected, how many have been repeated aggressors, how many have had issues with the courts again, so part of the regulations and guidelines establish the ability to quantify the effectiveness of a specific program,” said Boria.
“Preventive programs were being developed to comply with the courts. Diversion programs were not being worked to comply with rehabilitation and reeducation, which is the goal,” she said.
Although the regulations came into effect in January of this year, after seven months the Board has not received statistical information that the programs must submit, according to the regulations, said Boria.
The only evaluation that takes place is the one that the socio-criminal services technicians can do individually on those who remain in the reeducation programs by court order.
“It’s really tough to evidence a change in behavior. Diversion programs are like a time-out, in which they aren’t necessarily going to get the tools they need. People aren’t there because they want to, but because they have to,” said Iris V. Prado Sevilla, a specialist in Administrative Management and Assistance at Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, who previously served as a DCR probation officer.
Based on her experience, during the supervision process the socio-criminal services technicians gather information on the aggressors’ attendance at the program and their compliance with alimony payments, they carry out toxicological tests and follow up with the Police to confirm that they have not committed a new crime and interview the victim.
One limitation that these professionals face, Prado said, is the number of offenders in pretrial diversion programs, which socio-criminal services technicians must supervise, of which there are currently between 50 and 70 at any given time.
The coordinator of the Programa Cuaresma re-education center, located in the northwestern town of Arecibo, Mayra González, told the CPI about some of the initiatives that her staff take on for the re-education of its participants and the protection of the victims, but she acknowledged that she does so because she believes it is their responsibility and not because there is ongoing oversight of pretrial diversion programs under Act 54.
She said she has established a relationship with the staff at the Arecibo Court that allows her to learn about decisions that can affect the reeducation of an aggressor and to report quickly if it is not evident that the participant has developed empathy for the victim. In those cases, the court may extend the time that the abuser must be in the reeducation program. According to the law, the term of participation in the program will never be less than one year or more than three.
At Cuaresma, she said, “we don’t offer classes, we offer therapies.” Participants are seen in groups of up to 13 people, but some receive individual therapy.
“How do you evaluate a participant’s reeducation process?” the CPI asked.
“We evaluate them because we listen to them. We’re seeing them on a weekly basis and during these therapies they are asked questions and you can tell that they have done the introspection. That they can reoffend? That’s very difficult to establish,” said González. She said she has had participants who had previously been in other pretrial diversion programs and pointed out that it is common for aggressors under Act 54 to also face substance abuse problems, for which Cuaresma also offers therapies.
When the person has broken the law for a second time, the criminal record remains in place, even if the person has not served jail time, she said. González added that the court often gives offenders many opportunities to complete the reeducation process before ordering them to go to prison, even when they have failed to meet the conditions of their probation or have been absent from the program.
The judge assesses the degree of danger from the information offered by the socio-criminal services technician, who must report the person’s behavior in their community and get the victim’s opinion, she explained.
González confirmed that the Regulatory Board of Reeducation and Retraining Programs for Aggressors has been inactive for long stretches of time. She criticized the fact that it is the Women’s Advocate who chairs it and not an expert in the reeducation of aggressors, and that it is under the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Victim service providers demand equal emphasis on offenders
The concern remains among those who work directly with victims and survivors: that a real change will occur in the behavior of aggressors, and that those who have suffered the most from the blows of gender violence in intimate relationships will be protected.
“We need to change the approach because I believe that we’re swimming against the tide by just giving information and protection to the victim, but we aren’t looking at the aggressor, which is essential and is the main aspect of the problem. If we don’t work on the appropriate reeducation of the aggressor, we’ll never be able to solve the problem of gender violence,” said the president of the Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelters Network.
That is also the claim of Andrea Ruiz Costas’ family, which since the murder and discovery of her partially burned body in Cayey, has demanded transparency in the domestic violence judicial processes.
Regarding the diversion programs, which had no effect on Andrea’s murderer, her first cousin, Rebeca Noriega Costas, demanded greater oversight and that an aggressor’s criminal record not be cleared if there is no evidence of a change in behavior.
“A change has to be evident and there are behaviors that don’t change in a few months, not even in a few years. These programs require monitoring, effective treatment. Resources are needed for that. An alcoholic isn’t healed overnight, an addict isn’t either. An aggressor becomes an aggressor due to multiple factors and isn’t fixed magically,” said Noriega Costas.
Prevention is on PARE’s agenda
While human rights defenders and activists bet on prevention as the spearhead to address gender violence, Pagán Jiménez assured that, at the same time, evaluating the operation of reeducation programs under Act 54 is one of the items on the agendas of the several subcommittees of the PARE Committee.
“Although I’m not saying that reeducation programs should be eliminated, I do think that the recommendations that are being made to improve them should be addressed. But there are some of us who believe that, beyond thinking about the punitive aspects of Act 54, which is the obsession of many lawmakers, we should be thinking about preventing gender violence. That it isn’t necessary to reach the justice system and to have to impose a reeducation program on someone who accepts it only to avoid jail time, not because they have done some introspection and want to make a change in their life,” said the executive director of Proyecto Matria.
“We have to work from the point of view of education and prevention so that, when someone identifies himself as an aggressor, they feel encouraged to transform themselves. And that’s a totally separate issue from what Act 54 and the reeducation programs are, because it’s a different approach,” she noted.