Reforms since '94 have helped women, jailed abusers

March 08, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

See also: Awareness grows among county youth, police, courts

Reforms prompted by a 1994 federal law have led to significant improvements in protections for abused women and more jail time for abusers, according to advocates working to stem domestic violence.

The most significant changes were one that allows police to arrest abusers without warrants and another that forces women to testify against their abusers in court.

The federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 prodded states to reform domestic violence laws by funding police, prosecution and social service efforts to protect victims and their children.


To get the funding, the states had to meet certain conditions, said Maryland Del. Sue Hecht, D-Washington/Frederick.

Those conditions included giving police the power to arrest abusers without a warrant, extending the length of time protection orders are effective and increasing the penalties for men who violate orders, she said.

Hecht and other legislators won approval for those protections and others in the the Maryland Domestic Violence Act of 1995, she said. The act also:

* Increased from 12 hours to 48 hours the amount of time a victim has to report an attack.

* Required police to arrest anyone violating a court protective order.

* Required police responding to a scene where both people are battered to consider whether one of them acted in self-defense.

In the courtroom, the law required judges to consider evidence of abuse when deciding child custody or visitation issues, according to Maryland's Department of Legislative Reference.

The new law also included a section that said people involved in domestic disputes may refuse to testify against each other only once.

After that, prosecutors can force the victim to testify, something that made a police officer's job a lot easier.

"It used to be when you arrested somebody, by the time they went to court, they were back in love again," said Officer Randy Rourke, victim-witness coordinator for the Hagerstown Police Department.

Victims would refuse to testify, and the cycle of violence would often continue, he said.

"We knew the outcome before the arrest was made," Rourke said. It's now "more satisfying for officers."

Forcing testimony was a difficult choice, Hecht said.

"We sat on the fence because we didn't want to take power from victims," she said. "But many times we were not saving lives. We were losing lives."

It is very likely that funding for the Violence Against Women Act will be reauthorized, said Lisa Wright, press secretary to U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md.

"It's a huge, huge law and there are numerous versions that have been introduced so far in this Congress to reauthorize it," Wright said.

The many proposed bills will pass through the judiciary committee, of which Barlett is not a member, but "I am committed to taking steps to deter and punish to the severist extent violence against women," he said.

Gun Violence Act

Beyond the 1995 law, the Maryland Gun Violence Act of 1996 gave police authority to remove firearms from the scene of domestic violence disputes in which a protective order has been violated.

Lawmakers tried to extend the law power to cover temporary ex parte orders, but the bill failed, Hecht said.

The 2000 General Assembly session is considering a bill requiring the surrender of firearms in ex parte cases, Hecht said.

The federal Driver Privacy Protection Act of 1997 gave states the power to limit access to driver and vehicle records.

It was thought that this legislation would help protect victims - and it probably has - but there is some concern that it also helps protect abusers because victim advocates are now denied access to information about them, Hecht said.

Absolute Divorce was the "big initiative" for 1998, she said.

The legislation permits victims of domestic violence to file for divorce based on cruelty or vicious conduct without a one-year waiting period.

The "big one" for 1999 was the creation of peace orders, Hecht said.

The orders, which function much like protective orders, enlarged the pool of people who could get relief from courts, she said.

Traditional protective orders are issued as relief from such people as current or former spouses and cohabitants, but peace orders can be issued as relief from non-live-in mates and strangers.

A new law also requires police agencies to screen officers to see if they have ever been convicted of domestic assault. Officers guilty of abuse cannot carry a weapon, said Washington County Sheriff Charles F. Mades.


Police policy

Along with changes in law, policy changes in police departments, such as pro-prosecution and pro-arrest initiatives, are just as important, Hecht said.

"We have to have a balance of legislation and policy to move ahead," she said.

Pro-active policies illustrate law enforcement's commitment to treating domestic violence calls as "the violent crimes that they are," Hecht said.

Under the pro-prosecution initiative, if police have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, they are ordered to gather evidence and bring charges.

Under the pro-arrest initiative, police are supposed to make arrests if there is evidence at the scene that a crime has been committed.

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