State strengthens domestic violence laws
Posted: 5:07 pm Thu, October 25, 2012
A robust package of legislation that will improve the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
The new laws will increase penalties for repeat offenders and provide survivors with enhanced protections to more safely sever ties with their abusers.
The bill addresses the recidivist nature of domestic violence by holding serial offenders more accountable for their behavior with the creation of a new crime and new considerations when determining bail, and creates a state-level Fatality Review Team to find new ways to prevent intimate partner homicides.
“By strengthening the domestic violence laws, New York is leading the way in protecting victims and prosecuting offenders while demonstrating to the nation that we will not tolerate violence against our families,” Cuomo said. “This new law will make it a felony crime for criminals who repeatedly harm their families and ensure that they can are stopped.”
Domestic violence, according to a release, is a problem of enormous prevalence and impact in both New York state and across the nation. It has been identified by the U.S. Surgeon General as the No. 1 health problem affecting American women, and it floods the justice system of New York state, as well as the courts of every other state in the nation.
“With an estimated 450,000 domestic violence incidents reported to law enforcement in New York each year, domestic violence is an ongoing crisis,” said Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein. “I applaud the governor for signing this truly comprehensive legislation, which provides significant protections for victims of domestic violence and further penalizes abusers.”
Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Manhattan district attorney and president of the New York District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said the new law gives prosecutors a critically important tool to better protect victims of domestic violence.
“This legislation addresses one of the underlying problems of domestic violence — the ability of offenders to abuse their victims again and again without serious consequences,” Vance said. “And too often, we see domestic violence cases turn deadly.
“The Aggravated Family Offense bill was the result of a partnership that my Office undertook with the governor, the Senate, the Assembly, and domestic violence advocates throughout the state. I thank them for their strong support and tireless efforts,” Vance said.
Research shows that 70 to 80 percent of domestic violence offenders are repeat offenders against the same victims and that those in an intimate relationship are more likely to re-offend than those who commit crimes in “other” family relationships. In addition, offenders released without bail had a higher pre-trial recidivism rate than those released on bail, as did those charged with violating an order of protection.
The law creates the Class E felony of Aggravated Family Offense, which enables law enforcement to prosecute as felons defendants who commit certain misdemeanor-level offenses and have a previous conviction for a specified misdemeanor or felony against a family or household member within the past five years.
It also expands the definition of the Class A misdemeanor of Aggravated Harassment in the Second Degree to include when a defendant, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm, causes physical injury to an individual, or to a family or household member of that individual.
Although New York state already has a number of strong domestic violence protections, many domestic violence abusers repeatedly commit low-level offenses, which carry minor penalties, enabling them to continue subjecting their victims to fear and harm.
The aggravated family offense takes effect in 90 days and the aggravated harassment misdemeanor and the bail provision take effect in 60 days. The maximum sentence for a class A misdemeanor is one year in local jail; the maximum sentence for a class E felony is up to four years in state prison.
Under the new law, courts will be required for the first time to consider certain risk factors when determining recognizance or bail for a defendant who is charged with an offense against a family or household member.
Currently, courts are not required to consider any special factors, allowing offenders in some cases to go free on low bail and thereby be allowed to stalk, harm and sometimes kill their specifically targeted victims. Under the legislation signed Thursday, judges will be required to consider well-established risk factors, such as an offender’s prior violation of an order of protection and the accused’s access to guns.
Under the new law, the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence will establish a statewide domestic violence fatality review team to bring together domestic violence-related professionals to review domestic violence homicides, in an effort to understand more fully the factors involved and determine how the system can be improved in order to help prevent future deaths.
Other provisions include:
• Addressing non-criminal needs of domestic violence victims, providing options to sever relationships with abusers in a variety of ways; enhancing last year’s address confidentiality bill to provide appropriate protections for family members; ensuring insurance companies, when notified of the domestic violence, do not jeopardize a victim’s safety by disclosing confidential information to the abuser; and preventing abusers who were subject to an order of protection or charged with someone’s death from making funeral or burial arrangement decisions.
• Three new programs designed to enhance victim and officer safety, and hold offenders accountable for their crimes: A specialized domestic violence court at the Rikers Island Judicial Center for parolees with a history of domestic violence; a high-risk response team, and free, online training for police officers.
• Creation of a multi-disciplinary High Risk Team — composed of a domestic violence advocacy group, the police department and the department of probation — will use a standard list of risk assessment questions to identify the highest risk cases. The goal is to identify high-risk cases at the earliest point possible; develop a system for open communication among team members and make sure it works; contain and monitor the offender; and ensure victim services are easily accessible and comprehensive.
• For the first time, police departments will have access to web-based training on essential topics in domestic violence response, including investigating current and past incidents, collecting evidence, conducting interviews, applying the state’s mandatory arrest and primary physical aggressor provisions, and identifying possible criminal charges; officers are then guided through videos and asked to apply their knowledge to the cases depicted.