Tuesday, April 15, 2014
It’s not often a legislative body passes a bill unanimously, but the Massachusetts House did so last week when lawmakers, in a 142-0 vote, backed an overhaul of state domestic violence laws.
The proposal is considered the most sweeping legislation affecting the way law enforcement responds to domestic violence in a decade.
Its passage by the often-divided House shows the outrage generated by the stabbing death last August of Jennifer Martel, allegedly at the hands of Jared Remy, her boyfriend and the father of their daughter. Remy had a long history of violent offenses involving five woman spanning 17 years, most of which resulted in little more than probation despite his lengthening record of violence.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo cited the Remy case in explaining the proposed bill to the press, mincing no words when he said, “You could see that this was a horrific act waiting to happen.” DeLeo wants Massachusetts to help lead the way in countering domestic violence.
The new law aims to prevent repeat offenders such as Remy from falling through the cracks of the judicial system and to offer sounder protection to victims of domestic violence by setting new bail guidelines and tougher penalties for offenders.
Among the provisions, the bill would:
∎ Require domestic assault suspects to be held for at least six hours after an arrest, allowing a safety plan to be developed for victims.
∎ Require bail commissioners to prepare a written assessment of the safety risk a defendant poses.
∎ Provide judges and prosecutors full and uniform access to a defendant’s criminal record, including prior domestic violence charges and restraining orders from multiple jurisdictions.
∎ Create new laws regarding strangulation and suffocation, acts that statistically suggest greater likelihood of a future homicide.
∎ Give victims 15 days of leave from their jobs to help recover or receive medical or emotional treatment.
∎ Create a new charge for first-offense domestic assault and battery punishable by up to 2½ years in jail.
∎ Better training for judges, court officials and prosecutors.
The training part of this legislation cannot be underestimated. In the Remy debacle, it was not a lack of sufficient potential penalties that caused a needless death, but the failure of judges to act in a way that might have stopped the freight train of Remy’s apparent sociopathic behavior.
Judges — at times ignoring pleas from prosecutors — allowed Remy to go free under special conditions ranging from therapy to curfews rather than incarcerate him despite his well-documented history of repeated violent offenses — a pattern that experts says is a common precursor to homicide.
In some cases of domestic assault, the simple act of holding a defendant until a safety plan is developed can save a life. Holding bail commissioners accountable for their decisions by requiring a written explanation will also mean better decisions.
Compiling a defendant’s criminal history for a judge to examine when deciding a case is sorely needed — and common sense. As DeLeo said, “There are indicators. There are patterns.” Those with the power and duty to lock a dangerous defendant up should not be able to overlook such patterns. The House action last week worked with an amended version of a Senate bill passed in October. The bill is now in conference committee, where we urge legislators not to let it fall prey to the committee’s dreaded black hole problem. The bill should be delivered to the governor in a timely way, and he should sign it into law.
If anything good is to come out of Martel’s tragic, violent death, it should be a law that better protects victims and the community at large.
The Jared Remy case made Massachusetts a poster child for domestic violence policies that fail to protect. The new legislation could become a model for how to protect victims.
The law wasn’t shaped in time to protect Jennifer Martel, but lawmakers have a chance to make it her legacy.