No More "Get Out of Jail Free" Cards for Batterers

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Legal Momentum had planned this month as a celebratory one to toast the 20th Anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and LM’s role. Starting in 1990, Legal Momentum and then-Senator Joe Biden’s staff were joined at the hip for four years working on the bill, holding congressional hearings on the impact of violence against women, and organizing a coalition of women’s and domestic violence advocacy groups that became the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, which Legal Momentum co-leads, and which leads the effort to reauthorize VAWA every five years. We launched the successful #ThankYouVAWA and #HappyBirthdayVAWA social media campaign and shared fun photos of our VAWA Birthday Party. We’re proud that VAWA has been so effective; since 1993, a year before VAWA’s passage, yearly domestic violence rates have dropped 64%!

Our high-fives and back-slapping will have to come another day. The news is not good and there is no time nor incentive to celebrate. The national media has been focused on NFL player Ray Rice’s brutal assault of his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Rice. Much attention has been paid to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s woefully inadequate response. The NFL, like all employers, must take domestic violence seriously and become a leader in responding to domestic violence and supporting victims connected to the League. The Rice case and the subsequent miscarriage of justice in the courts remind us that we still have a long way to go with the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence assaults. Though Rice was indicted for a serious felony assault, and the entire world had viewed damning video evidence, the prosecutor approved Rice’s application for pre-trial diversion intended for first-time non-violent offenders. That’s bad. A  judge then approved this placement. That’s really bad. Legal Momentum has called on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to investigate why the Atlantic City prosecutor failed to prosecute in this case, and whether felonious, violent batterers are being inappropriately referred to this pre-trial program across the state. New Jersey, and all states, must hold violent batterers accountable for their actions and treat domestic violence as seriously as other violent crimes.

Famous ball players aren’t the only ones receiving “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. Federal judge Mark Fuller, who was charged with misdemeanor battery for assaulting his wife in Atlanta, Georgia, also skirted justice through pre-trial diversion. Georgia, too, should examine the use of pre-trial diversion for domestic violence, and, if it is being used inappropriately, the statute should be revised as necessary or new guidelines should be issued. Thankfully, Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri have called for his resignation. An administrative complaint has been filed against the judge, and Legal Momentum urges the disciplinary panel to remove him from the bench if the allegations are proven true.

While we’ve made a great deal of progress in the 20 years since VAWA’s passage, these past few weeks have shown that we still have our work cut out for us.