June 18, 2018
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Domestic violence offenders must be focus of law

Walter Griffin | BDN
Walter Griffin | BDN
Lincolnville police chief Bill LaBombarde and Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story examine the "An Empty Place at the Table'' exhibit at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast in October 2005. The table's place settings once belonged to area women who were victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence, from striking a spouse to murdering him or her, is a scourge the world over, in America and especially in Maine, where it accounts for half of the homicides each year. Dealing with the matter requires a careful balance of protecting the victims while respecting the rights of accused offenders.

Both concerns figure in a bill now working its way through the Legislature. It is a product of Gov. Paul LePage, who has made domestic violence a signature issue in his administration in part because of his own experiences with it as a child. House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Bangor, and public interest advocacy groups also have worked on the proposal.

In an unusually bipartisan effort, lawmakers have tweaked the original bill in two particular respects, and with the governor’s hearty approval, according to his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett.

First, the proposed legislation now focuses strongly on the very dangerous alleged offenders, the ones who are most likely to commit harsh and often repeated violence. This classification includes those most likely to commit serious crimes including homicide or are alleged to have violated a protection from abuse order. They will have to go before a judge for a ruling on whether bail will be granted.

Accused offenders deemed to be less dangerous need not go before a judge, and a bail commissioner may make the determination. “If every alleged offender were to go before a judge this would place an enormous burden on the court system,” Ms. Bennett said.

Second, the revised bill now repeatedly emphasizes strangulation, defining it as “the intentional impeding of the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by applying pressure on the person’s throat or neck.” The bill includes strangulation as one indicator of “extreme indifference to the value of human life” and makes it figure prominently in risk assessment.

A task force on strangulation for the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse led to a recommendation that strangulation is prevalent and needs to be included in the Maine criminal code. Putting it there will also create a statutory deterrent, notes Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The bill clarifies an existing statute imposing a special fee of either $25 or $10, in addition to any other fines, on persons convicted of various felonies or misdemeanors. The proceeds go to the Victim’s Compensation Fund, which supports funerals, medical and mental-health therapy and other needs of survivors of domestic violence crimes. Ms. Colpitts says the fund is far from adequate to meet the need.

A possible shortcoming of the legislation is its failure to deal with domestic abuse involving words and actions that are intimidating and threatening other than physical violence. While it does include provisions about stalking, it probably should deal also with emotional violence, which can be equally painful and destructive.

The legislation makes no mention of handguns, which figure in the majority of domestic violence homicides. A revised handgun control bill is said to be under consideration.

Domestic violence is too common an occurrence and stronger steps to deter it are needed. The bipartisan attention these bills are receiving reflect a commitment to that deterrence.

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