June 5, 2012

Last summer headlines in Maine were dominated by the horrific tragedy that happened to Lake family from Dexter. Amy Lake, a beloved teacher, along with her two children were murdered by her estranged husband who then took his own life. Amy Lake was a victim of repeated domestic violence.

“The events last year in Dexter show how domestic violence can rock communities, destroy lives, and forever scar our state,” said Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, who is the House minority leader, during testimony on her bill LD 1711, an Act to Mandate the Use of Standardized Risk Assessment in the Management of Domestic Violence Crimes.

Cain’s proposal and actions by other lawmakers this session will help turn the tide on the numbers of domestic violence cases in Maine. The new laws strengthen procedures for setting bail conditions, sentencing, and offender release notifications in domestic violence cases.

“When it comes to domestic violence, we need to be approaching it from every angle to try and solve the problem,” said Rep. Cain. “Maine is a state where people are not afraid to leave their doors or cars unlocked, but too many people live in fear of being in their own home. When you look at the fact that Maine has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation but more than half of those murders are domestic violence related, you have to know we can do better than that. We have to address it both from the community-education support for children and families side and from a law-enforcement and judicial side. My bill comes at this from the latter.”

LD 1711 requires the use of validated, evidence-based, domestic violence risk assessment by law enforcement officers in cases involving suspected or alleged domestic violence or abuse. The risk assessment would be given to both the bail commissioner and the district attorney involved in the case, to help inform bail conditions and sentencing.

“When an act of domestic violence or abuse occurs and law enforcement interacts with that alleged abuser, an assessment needs to be done of that individual. That analysis will tell us the likelihood that they will repeat that act of domestic violence. With that information in the right hands, we are going to have a greater likelihood of stopping repeat offenders,” said Cain.

The evidence-based assessments have shown to more accurately predict offender recidivism, according to the Pew Center.

“We had a task force of law enforcement officers, the judicial branch, advocates against domestic violence, and the governor’s commissioner of public safety testify in favor of the measure,” said Cain. “When you look at domestic violence in Maine, it very rarely happens once; it’s a cycle. A horrible example of that was the Lake case.”

Another measure, LD 1760, an Act to Ensure Notification to Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking When Defendants Are Released on Bail, would ensure victims are notified by the jail within one hour by phone when offenders are released.

“I submitted the bill after being contacted by several constituents who were victims of domestic violence and who did not receive notification that their perpetrators had made bail until after the perpetrators were released and out on the streets,” said Rep. Alan Casavant of Biddeford, who sponsored the measure. “When a victim’s safety is at stake, we need to do everything we can to make sure that they receive notification as soon as possible.”

Until this bill which was signed into law April 7, 2012 Maine required law enforcement agencies to adopt notification policies, but the practice of notification was not uniform across the state.

Another law bars judges from waiving $25 fees that perpetrators in violent crimes must pay to the Victims’ Compensation Fund.

Of the 48 homicides in Maine in 2010 and 2011, 21 were domestic violence related, according to a report by the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel. The vast majority of the domestic violence homicide victims were female and four were children. The victims ranged in age from 4 months to 89 years.

“Annually, domestic violence homicides comprise somewhere around 50 percent of our deaths,” said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who chairs the review panel. “That number stays somewhat steady.”

The panel was established in 1997 to review cases of domestic homicide and to offer recommendations to improve coordination and community response that will protect people from domestic abuse.

Rep. Cain’s law furthers the goal of decreasing the incidents of domestic violence in Maine directly.

“It’s a needed tool to help law enforcement protect citizens,” said Cain. “The law will help better identify those who are likely to commit acts of domestic violence again and stop them before they can.”

Cain is also the sponsor of the governor’s domestic violence bill, LD 1867, An Act To Protect Victims of Domestic Violence. The bill will strengthen the bail sentencing for perpetrators in acts of domestic violence and requires that judges set bail conditions instead of bail commissioners in certain cases.

“Stemming the tide of domestic violence in our state is a bipartisan priority,” said Cain. “We must also work together on comprehensive domestic violence prevention resources and treatment for battered women and their families.”

The Legislature also helped to fund part of the cost of a forensic chemist in the State Police Crime Lab.

“To the state police, without this position, a third of the work in the lab is not going out the door, and that means a third of the cases that law enforcement in Maine does will not be solved,” said. Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, during his testimony on the bill in Augusta.

Although that funding originated in the highway fund, lawmakers understood the importance of funding to the Crime Lab.