, Salem, MA

April 4, 2014

Our view: A strong beginning, but work to be done on domestic abuse reform

The Salem News

---- — Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo was widely praised earlier this week for promising to bring before legislators a package of reforms to the state’s domestic abuse laws, and rightly so. The laws are in dire need of an update, as evidenced by any number of tragic stories in the pages of this newspaper.

It is vital, however, for legislators to proceed carefully and thoughtfully. A law passed in a hurry can score immediate points with the public; it can also contain enough loopholes and inconsistencies to render it useless down the line.

A troubling section of DeLeo’s proposal, for example, would hide most reports of domestic abuse complaints and arrests from the public. Shielding public information from the public eye is no way to confront what amounts to a public safety and health crisis. Citizens have a right to know about the number and type of crimes committed in their communities, and how public safety officials responded. Keeping people in the dark about domestic abuse hurts the public and helps batterers, who often rely on anonymity or inattention by those around them to continue to hurt their partners without fear of being held to account.

DeLeo said the stabbing death of Jennifer Martel last summer, allegedly at the hands of Jared Remy, son of the Red Sox broadcaster, spurred his decision to move ahead with reform.

“This bill was born out of a tragedy,” he said at a Statehouse press conference earlier this week. “Following a shocking crime, I didn’t know how I could just sit back as a speaker, a father, a man, and not do everything I could to stop such senseless acts of violence.”

Remy’s arrest last August came a day after he was released from custody on charges of assaulting Martel, the mother of his young daughter. The case raised questions of whether the court system overlooked Remy’s long history of violence.

“There are indicators, there are patterns,” DeLeo told the State House News Service. “As so many folks I spoke to in preparing this bill said, it is preventable. And that was the key word that stuck with me throughout this whole process, that many of these acts were preventable.”

The House proposal calls for sweeping changes, many of them long overdue. It would create new categories of domestic crimes, including strangulation and suffocation, which can point to the possibility of a future homicide.

Battery suspects would remain in custody for at least six hours before being released on bail, to give accusers a chance to plan for their safety. Judges would have access to more information on a defendant, including past charges and restraining orders, when making bail and sentencing decisions. Justices and court personnel would be trained on domestic violence issues every two years.

Another measure would provide domestic abuse victims with 15 days of unpaid leave from their job to deal with issues such as court appearances and the search for safer housing. While the Associated Industries of Massachusetts supports the measure, there are several questions that need to be answered, including who ultimately decides a leave is appropriate. As it is written now, the proposal would give the person taking leave up to six ways to document abuse, including police reports, medical reports and written affidavits. Are employers expected to become experts on such legal documents, and if so, how will they be trained, and at what cost? Who is the final arbiter over whether leave needs to be granted? And the provision applies only to companies of 50 or more employees, leaving a large swath of businesses — and employees — unaffected by the law.

The bill has the support of Attorney General Martha Coakley and several of the state’s district attorneys, and DeLeo said he expects the bill to pass next week.

Members of the defense bar have already pointed out potential flaws, including whether holding a defendant for an extra six to eight hours would violate their due process rights. They also question how the state would pay for and monitor training of court officials and other staffers.

The defense bar, of course, has an interest in criticizing any proposed laws that would affect their clientele. But they do have a point when they say a rushed law is often a bad law.

The proposal that will be debated in the House next week is a strong beginning. Now is the time to get it right.