November 1st, 2014

N.H. establishes domestic violence as distinct crime

Advocates in New Hampshire say a new state law may help to better identify and stop offenders of domestic violence.

“Joshua’s Law” – which goes into effect Jan. 1 and was named after a 9-year-old who was murdered by his father during a supervised visitation session – establishes domestic violence as a distinct crime (N.H. was one of more than a dozen states without such classification). While the law carries no enhanced penalties, advocates say that by labeling crimes like assaults or stalking with the domestic violence designation, law enforcement and the judicial system may more easily be able to identify patterns and risks and make more informed decisions for bail, sentencing and treatment options.

Advocates say assaults among strangers are different than those against intimate partners or family members, so those types of crimes should be treated differently.

Katie M. Edwards, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire, did some advocacy work with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, to help increase legislative understanding of the bill. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously; the House voted 325-3 in favor.

Crimes that happen behind closed doors versus in public may require very different treatments, Edwards says. “Those that happen in private are much more likely to escalate over time,” Edwards says. “Domestic violence is often something that is repeated, it happens over time and it’s often not a one-time incident.”

There are additional variables to consider, she says, for example, in domestic assaults between men and women. “In those cases, they are gender dynamics that have to be addressed between issues of power and control,” she says.

“So having a name for a crime that is more accurate intuitively makes sense. [The new legislation] gives a name and a face to the crime,” Edwards says. “We are calling it for what it is; we are calling it domestic violence.”

Edwards says the new legislation should also help by better tracking crimes, which could improve follow-up and better connect victims and perpetrators with the appropriate services. “It could help reduce subsequent violence because we will have a better tracking system,” she says.

Under the new legislation, police and prosecutors will now have to establish that the victim and defendant were family or household members or intimate partners. Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia M. LaFrance, Esq., is among those conducting trainings for the Attorney General’s Office that aim to help police and prosecutors better identify such crimes.

LaFrance says being able to establish a record of domestic violence related crimes will give prosecutors and judges an extra element of information that will help make the most appropriate bail and sentencing recommendations.

“It makes it easier for the prosecutors and the judges to understand what this person’s criminal history is,” LaFrance says. “We want to make sure we’re identifying that person as having that history of domestic violence so we can address it.”

Statistics in New Hampshire show that more than 90 percent of murder-suicides are related to domestic violence, and about half of homicides, LaFrance says.

“With cases I’ve had, sadly you see the same defendants coming back with the same victims,” she says. Victims of domestic violence may not have a lot of support at home, because oftentimes, their abuser is the person who is supposed to be giving them that support, she says. The abuser may isolate the victim and control the family finances. “It’s really about control and power,” LaFrance says.

“The ultimate goal is to identify these abusers early on, get whatever treatment we can and start holding them accountable for their continued pattern of behavior,” LaFrance says.

By Pamela Berard

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