On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines across the country according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That is 20,000 families suffering from violence at the hands of an abuser.
The goal of our bipartisan legislation put forward by Democrat Delegate Kathleen Murphy and me was simple — give those who have been victimized by domestic violence multiple times a period of safety during which they could take actions to break the cycle of violence.
By the time an offender would have been covered by our legislation, the abuser would typically have been arrested and brought to court a minimum of three times. Virginia has a program in place that diverts first-time offenders into counseling programs in a nod to restoration, rather than punitive justice.
At the first actual conviction, the offender can face jail time. Most don’t receive it. At the second conviction, jail time would seem like a certainty. When we looked at this problem, however, we were shocked to find that jail time is the exception rather than the rule for such repeat offenders. Our bill would have mandated two months in jail for those chronic abusers who have received this second conviction in 10 years, which is often the third time around for many who received “first offender” treatment previously.
According to statistics from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, those convicted for a second time of Assault and Battery against a family member in the 10-year window covered by the bill get no jail time in 53 percent of cases.
Judges have the ability to sentence offenders to jail, but they also have the ability to “suspend” those sentences — jail time disappears unless the offender commits another offense or violates some other dictate form the court.
Virginia vests her local judges with tremendous amounts of discretion. They’re called judges for a reason. But there are some instances where the General Assembly can, speaking through legislation, correct actions taken by the judiciary that are contrary to the public good.
Here, our goal was to provide affirmative support for those victimized multiple times. By removing the abuser from the equation for two months, we had hoped to provide a period of relative safety. Victims could move, take legal action to dissolve the relationship, get additional court-ordered protection, and find emotional and financial support for them and their children.
Governor Northam argues that our bill would disproportionately impact communities of color, and following his admissions from February, he says this was an attempt at repairing his badly damaged reputation in the African American community. The implementation of current law suggests strongly that his opinion is incorrect. VCSC reports that the incarceration rate of both white and black offenders is almost statistically identical.
Ralph Northam is a physician. He knows the physical and emotional pain that can be caused with a fist or a weapon, yet he chose to help his political career as the expense of survivors of domestic violence.
Republicans and Democrats in the House as well as the Senate sent this bill to the Governor’s desk by huge majorities, I plan to do that again in 2020. I would strongly urge Governor Northam to right his wrongs from the 2019 session and allow survivors to have the relief from their abusers that they deserve. The survivors of abuse, and Virginians as a whole, deserve better.
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