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Rhode Island: One Step Closer to Preventing Domestic Violence

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by Chris Wilhite

The RI General Assembly is currently considering legislation that would make strangulation a felony domestic assault. In fact 30 other states have already passed this type of law.

If your partner strangles you they are telling you that they hold your life in their hands and have the power to end it. And if you call the police right now in Rhode Island, your abuser will be charged with simple assault, which is a misdemeanor.

Simple assault!

For a deadly act of abuse. Not only is strangulation deadly (it only takes a few seconds to strangle someone to death), but someone who has been strangled or choked by their partner is almost 10 times more likely to be murdered by that partner than someone who has not. In addition, injuries sustained from strangulation assaults can cause such effects as neurological damage sustained from the lack of oxygen to the brain. Strangulation assaults can also lead to miscarriage. So, in Rhode Island, we charge an abuser who has strangled his or her partner with simple assault misdemeanor.

It would take your abuser three times to do that to you, get arrested and then convicted before he or she is actually charged with a felony.

But wait a second. Recently, Justice Assistance released a report that showed that half or more of all misdemeanor domestic assault cases were dismissed last year. This is an alarming upward trend in dismissals of domestic violence misdemeanors in Rhode Island's District Courts. In some towns, Justice Assistance found dismissal rates as high as 80%!

So, with that new lens, if your abuser strangles you, what do you do? If you call the police, he or she might be charged with a misdemeanor simple assault, which is more likely than not to be dismissed by the court.

So, remind me, why would you call the police in Rhode Island?

This is a shameful gap of accountability in Rhode Island. I'm sure that no state decision maker wants to allow domestic violence to continue. Especially since murder is the ultimate expression of domestic violence.

But if Rhode Island's legal system is serious about stopping domestic violence homicides, then it must start with stopping domestic violence by holding abusers accountable.

First, we need to drastically cut the rate of dismissals for domestic assault misdemeanors in Rhode Island. It is simply outrages that we are giving abusers "a free pass" in the words of Scott MacKay.

Second, we need to pass a law that makes strangulation in domestic relationships a felony assault.

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