October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

By Jayna Smith

DA Bill Entwistle on 

Domestic Violence

In Maine alone, domestic assault is reported to police every hour, 37 minutes.  The first Domestic Violence Awareness Month was observed in 1987.  Two years later, the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month Commemorative Legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress.  Disturbing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that:

-There are 5.3 million incidents of intimate partner violence (physical assault, rape, and stalking) against women age 18 and older in the United States each year.  These incidents result in 1,300 deaths and 2 million injuries.

-Victims of intimate partner violence lose a total of nearly 8 million days of paid work (the equivalent of over 32,000 full-time jobs).

-The costs of these victimizations exceed $5.8 billion annually.

-To highlight awareness of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Assistance District Attorney Bill Entwistle shared information on the issue.  Entwistle has established a track record of being a strong advocate for victims of crime.  He has successfully prosecuted cases of domestic violence, as well as burglaries, robberies, drug offenses, and drunk driving.   For over six year, Entwistle has sat on the board of directors for The Next Step Domestic Violence Project. 

How is “domestic violence” (DV) defined?  In Maine law, crimes of domestic violence are determined by the relationship between the victim and the offender.  So, if a person commits the crime of assault, terrorizing, criminal threatening, reckless conduct, or stalking and the victim is a “family or household member” as that term is defined by statute, it is a crime of domestic violence.  The behavior that legally constitutes each of these crimes is the same whether or not it is a crime of domestic violence, but it is the special relationship between the perpetrator and the victim which brings it into the realm of domestic violence.

What is the punishment for one convicted of DV?  The punishment for domestic violence crimes depends on the facts of each case, including the seriousness of the event, the severity of any injuries, the offender’s prior criminal history, and any other aggravating or mitigating factors.  A domestic violence assault carries a potential maximum penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.  A person who has been convicted of a crime of domestic violence may be placed on probation for up to two years and required to follow conditions which can include no alcohol or illegal drugs, and to undergo counseling; if the person fails to follow the conditions he or she can be ordered to serve a jail sentence.  If a person has a prior conviction for a domestic violence crime the second offense is a felony with a potential maximum punishment of up to five years in prison.  A person’s right to possess firearms is affected by a conviction for a domestic assault.  It is a crime under Federal law for a person who has been convicted of a domestic assault to possess a firearm. 

What do you feel are some challenges to prosecuting?  There are many challenges to prosecuting domestic violence cases.  First and foremost is to provide support for victims.  Domestic violence relationships are characterized by an imbalance of power in the relationship.  The imbalance can show up as physical violence, emotional abuse, control over finances, and control over access to family and friends.  It is often a terrifying prospect for someone to stand up to a person who may have been abusing them for years.  The District Attorney’s Office works with the Next Step Domestic Violence Project so victims can have access to safety planning, housing, and legal support.  Other challenges in domestic violence prosecutions include advocating for appropriate bail conditions, and continuing to seek tough sentences for people who commit crimes of domestic violence.

Do you think legislation with regards to DV is lacking?  The more tools prosecutors and police have to stop domestic violence the better.  We need to be sure that new programs are well thought out and will be useful and effective in breaking the cycle, which so often passes from generation to generation.    We should be looking at treatment options for offenders who are on probation as well as in our jails and prisons; we should also be looking at educational programs to get the word out that domestic abuse is not ok and will not be tolerated in our communities.

How has the justice system changed in recent years in response to the increasing trend in DV?  Over the years the legal system generally has become much more sensitive to domestic violence issues.  The support that victims may need in order to be comfortable in confronting their abuser, the impact on children who witness domestic violence, the relationship between animal abuse and domestic abuse, and the consideration given to different factors in weighing the risk of future violence, are examples of changes that have been incorporated over the years to make domestic violence prosecutions more effective.  The basic challenge in prosecuting these cases remains, because of the passion that exists at the core of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.  We’re dealing with a situation with the potential for explosive violence, arising out of a relationship that often has a great imbalance of power between the parties, as well as a high level of affection and attachment. 

What is your opinion of ODARA?  ODARA (Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment) is a protocol for assessing the risk of future violence.  It is designed to give an objective rating to bail commissioners and judges to be used to set appropriate bail conditions, particularly as it relates to contact with the victim.  All law enforcement agencies are required to use ODARA as of January 1, 2015.  ODARA is not intended to be the only factor considered in setting bail.  I hope that it will be a useful tool that will give us more information about a defendant so we as prosecutors as well as judges can make better, more informed decisions when setting bail conditions involving violent offenders.