Two recent tragic cases of domestic violence in Monmouth County should serve as reminders that such brutal acts occur everywhere. No community is immune. In Middletown, a mother of two was murdered by her husband when beaten to death with a frying pan.
In Neptune, a mother of nine was gunned down by her ex- husband in front of one of their children. Sadly, there are many more similar stories that go untold.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief indicates that a domestic violence victim is abused 35 times before actually calling the police. It’s difficult to comprehend the pain and misery an individual and family endure before finally finding the courage to call for help.
Much can be learned by looking at how other jurisdictions have dealt with domestic violence in a more comprehensive way. In Sacramento, Calif. the district attorney’s domestic violence unit is located within the Domestic Violence Home Court. The unit is comprised of a team of attorneys, victim advocates, investigators and support staff who are all involved in the prosecution of domestic violence cases.
Also in California, Orange County domestic violence courts have a comprehensive treatment program for victims, their abusers and children. The program is a successful partnership developed with superior court, county probation, social services, local battered women’s shelters, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the county’s Health Care Agency. This gives victims easier access to whatever help they need.
In Washington, D.C., the courts have a domestic violence unit that specifically handles cases involving restraining orders. Unit judges also hear cases alleging violations of those orders and all misdemeanor criminal cases involving families. Its Superior Court also hosts domestic violence intake centers that provide a single access point for victims.
While high-profile cases like that of former NFL player Ray Rice shine the national spotlight on the issue, here in New Jersey there is much we need to do to further protect victims and their families.
Last year, the Assembly Women and Children Committee heard testimony from individuals on the front lines of this issue that the Ray Rice case wasn’t rare. Even though common sense dictates that knocking someone unconscious is an attempt to cause serious bodily injury, these charges are frequently downgraded. Reducing charges that allow a violent act to go unpunished trivializes the seriousness of this crime.
The committee also learned that the majority of domestic violence cases, which numbers about 32,000 annually in New Jersey, currently go through municipal courts. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to sit alongside individuals waiting to see the judge for a traffic offense. The terrified victim could also be waiting with her angry abuser with little, if any, protection. The case is then heard by a judge, who may have only 90 minutes of training in handling domestic violence cases. As a result, 80 percent of cases referred to municipal court are dismissed.
To help combat this issue, I have introduced legislation, A-3801, which creates a three-year domestic violence court pilot program in Monmouth and Camden counties. Any case involving domestic violence could be referred to the domestic violence court. Judges assigned to this court will be required to have extensive knowledge and experience in criminal law, procedure and sentencing.
Two other measures include A-3802, which calls for a mandatory three-year prison term for domestic violence assault, and A-3803, which establishes a minimum level of domestic violence training for judges and judicial personnel. It directs the Administrative Office of the Courts to develop and approve a training course and a curriculum consisting of at least three hours. This will ensure that judges and judicial personnel at all levels will receive this vital training.
There is strong bipartisan support for the idea of domestic violence courts. Sens. Stephen Sweeney, Loretta Weinberg, and the Assembly chairwoman of Women and Children are all sponsors of this legislation. This issue is too important to delay any longer. The Legislature should not wait for another life lost before we fix a broken system.
Caroline Casagrande, R-Monmouth, is an assemblywoman representing the 11th legislative district.