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New laws provide protection for victims of domestic violence
STATE — On April 17, Governor Paul LePage signed two bills into law that provide additional protection to victims of domestic violence.
The laws are part of the governor's initiative to make domestic violence awareness a priority for his administration.
LePage signed LD 1867 — "An Act To Prevent Domestic Violence Victims" and LD 1760 — "An Act to Ensure Notification to Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking When Defendants are Released on Bail," during a ceremony at the Hall of Flags at the State House.
LD 1867 amends Maine's bail code so that a judge, rather than a bail commissioner, sets the terms of bail for suspects in domestic violence cases.
The law also "adds strangulation to the definition of what conduct constitutes as aggravated assault," written in a press release from the Governor's office.
LD 1760 requires authorities to notify victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking when when their abuser is released from jail.
Jane Morrison, executive director of Safe Voices, a domestic violence non-profit with offices in Oxford, Androscoggin and Franklin counties, says that the two laws will undoubtedly benefit victims of domestic violence.
Morrison says that requiring judges to set bail conditions is a step forward, particularly because setting bail for perpetrators of domestic violence has been a considerable issue in the past.
"We're always amazed at the low bail set, and how easy it is for them [the defendant] to get out," Morrison says.
She says she has seen plenty of situations in which a victim was put in further danger because a perpetrator was let out on bail amounts that were sometimes as low as $75.
Because bail commissioners are not privy to a defendant's history, Morrison says individuals with a history of domestic violence would be arrested on a domestic violence charge. But because bail commissioners would only see the most recent arrest charges, the suspect would be given a very low bail amount.
According to Morrison, LD 1867 will fix this gap in the system.
Norway Police Chief Rob Federico says that LD 1867 is a "wise step" that will give everyone involved more time to understand the situation in the wake of a domestic violence arrest.
"More likely than not, the judge is not going to see the person in the first few hours after their arrest," said Federico.
"That is going to allow the victim to hopefully obtain a protection from abuse (PFA) order, obtain some information from Safe Voices on how to be safe and to allow law enforcement an opportunity to come up with a safety plan with the victim as well."
Federico says that once a victim decides to move ahead with getting a PFA, the process should be completed within a 24-hour period, particularly if they are receiving aid from an advocacy group like Safe Voices.
With 1867 in place, Federico says, the victims have a much better chance to file a PFA quickly.
"If the suspect has to go in front of a judge that means there's a judge there. And if the judge has an opportunity to hear from the victim for their PFA or the defendent for their bail hearing, I assure you he'll take the victim first," says Federico.
He agreed that, with the new law, judges will be given the opportunity to look at all the circumstances of the case and make an informed decision on bail.
"Each case is different, and sometimes things do slip through the cracks," said Federico. "This, hopefully, will help plug up some of that."
Morrison says that the inclusion of "strangulation" in LD 1867 is also a big step in the right direction.
A recent study conducted by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence surveyed 151 domestic violence survivors on their experience with strangulation.
Almost 73 percent of the respondents said that they had been strangled or choked by an intimate partner, and 79 percent of those victims said they had been choked or strangled on more than one occasion.
Morrison says that LD 1760 is equally important.
Victims feel safe knowing that their abuser is in jail, Morrison says. When an abuser is released from jail or a suspected abuser is let out on preconviction bail victims need to know so they have time to prepare.
Morrison says the fact that the law also covers stalking is a big step in the right direction.
Even though stalking is not a form of physical abuse, it is mentally and emotionally damaging.
"We certainly work with a lot of people whose life has been turned upside down and ruined by stalking," she said.