By Philip Marcelo
Journal State House Bureau
The Providence Journal, February 22, 2011
PROVIDENCE –– Following a year in which Rhode Island saw its highest number of domestic violence-related murders, four bills are being introduced into the state legislature this year to better protect victims and their children.
The bills, three of which have been submitted in previous years, include increased penalties for strangulation, disorderly conduct and Internet crimes such as cyberstalking.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence hopes the package of bills, which it has made its top legislative priority this year, will send a strong message to repeat offenders. With 13 domestic violence-related deaths, 2010 was the state’s deadliest year on record for domestic violence, according to the coalition.
“If we are serious about ending domestic violence, then we have to be serious about stopping domestic violence. And that means putting in good tools for police and prosecutors for holding batterers accountable and we believe that these bills will give our justice system those tools,” said Zulma Garcia, the coalition’s policy director.
The first bill –– H5261 and S70 –– is aimed at disorderly conduct offenders and has already generated opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union. The proposal calls for stiffer penalties for repeat petty misdemeanor charges when they are charged under the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
State law currently calls for mandatory jail time of up to one year after two misdemeanor offenses; a third offense constitutes a felony with a mandatory prison sentence up to 10 years. The coalition-backed proposal would make petty misdemeanors subject to the same enhanced penalties if classified as a domestic violence crime.
Garcia says the proposal is targeted specifically at disorderly conduct, which is a petty misdemeanor that was the second-most-common domestic violence charge in 2010, with 2,077 charges, an increase of 13 percent from 2009, according to the coalition. (Disorderly conduct is considered a domestic violence crime when it is committed by a family or household member against another.)
But Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, says applying the same tough standard to a petty misdemeanor is inappropriate.
“Petty misdemeanors are designated the least serious of all criminal offenses. Three of these minor offenses simply should not be treated the same as a major offense,” he said in written testimony submitted to the House Judiciary Committee last week.
A second bill –– H5087–– would make choking and strangling, even if it does not cause serious injury, a felony assault. (Strangulation is currently charged as a misdemeanor simple assault.) According to the coalition, a domestic violence victim who has been strangled is nine times more likely to be killed than one who has not.
A third bill –– H5264 –– is being introduced for the first time this year and would add cyberstalking and cyberharrassment to the 14 crimes that can be charged as domestic violence offenses under the state’s domestic violence law.
By including such internet-related crimes under the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act, victims can be afforded extra protections, including an automatic no-contact order against the offender, and penalty enhancement for repeat offenses, according to the coalition.
The final bill focuses on child custody and visitation rights for parents, establishing a protocol for state Family Court to use in divorces and separation where there is a history of domestic abuse or violence. That bill has yet to be introduced this year but was submitted last year.