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End the abuse [Editorial]

Maryland has made significant progress in recent years toward reducing cases of domestic violence against women and children in the state. During the last decade, domestic violence assaults have fallen 20 percent, and homicides of women and children attributable to domestic assaults dropped by 32 percent. But glaring weaknesses remain in the law, and we urge legislators to further strengthen the protections courts can extend to the victims of abuse.

A package of bills sponsored by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in this year's General Assembly would give prosecutors and judges greater power to deter such crimes and hold their perpetrators accountable. These measures are needed to ensure that prosecutors and judges can extend the protection of the courts to abuse victims and prevent their tormentors from inflicting further physical and emotional harm.

One measure would make it easier for victims to get final protective orders generally lasting as long as a year against abusive spouses or partners by correcting the standard of evidence abuse victims seeking the courts' protection must meet. Under the current standard, it's not enough for a woman to testify that her tormentor harassed or threatened her; she has to show he acted or attempted to act on those threats in a way clearly intended to harm. In recent years there have been a number of cases in Maryland that involved women who were denied protective orders because they could not meet that standard later being hurt by abusive spouses or partners.

Maryland is the only state in the nation that requires victims to show "clear and convincing evidence" that their lives are at risk. Last year, out of 5,700 requests for permanent protective orders that were denied by the courts, 3,500 were rejected because they didn't meet that evidentiary standard. The governor's bill would lower the standard for issuing permanent protective orders from "clear and convincing evidence" to "a preponderance of evidence," a change would give judges much greater discretion in determining whether such an order was warranted and to impose stiff penalties on violators.

A second bill would add the offense of second-degree assault — the most common charge in domestic violence cases — to the list of crimes that could make a victim eligible to obtain a permanent protective order. Currently, if an abuser brutally beats his partner but later accepts a plea deal on a lesser charge of second-degree assault, the victim cannot get a permanent protective order — even though she clearly may still be at risk. The legislation would also correct another quirk in the law by allowing judges to issue protective orders against anyone sentenced to at least five years in prison for domestic violence, regardless of how much time they actually serve.

The final bill in the governor's package would increase the penalties for committing acts of domestic violence in the presence of a child, long a priority of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. The psychological and emotional trauma inflicted on children who witness a parent or caregiver being violently attacked or injured often endures long after the incident has passed and can affect the course of their lives for years to come. Such children are at greater risk of becoming abusers or victims themselves, and they are more likely to drop out of school, become addicted to alcohol or drugs or to run afoul of the juvenile justice system.

As always, though, the push for greater protections will not be easy. Some critics have expressed concern that the provision in the package that adds second-degree assault to the list of offenses justifying the issuance of permanent protective orders could tarnish the reputations of people accused of relatively minor forms of inappropriate touching. And Montgomery County Democrat Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons is sponsoring legislation that would allow accused abusers who consent to the entry of a protective order to petition to have the record of the case shielded from public view.

The shielding of records is not automatic, and law enforcement and social services personnel as well as victim services providers would still be able to access the information. But under current law, the opportunity is only available in cases where a judge denies or dismisses the petition for a protective order. The proposed change affords a greater possibility that those who are in fact guilty could have their court records shielded from view by future potential partners, among others.

The proposals contained in the administration's package of legislation do not need to be weakened, and we are confident that Mr. Brown, who has argued passionately for strengthening the law since his cousin was killed by an estranged boyfriend in 2007, will resist any such attempt.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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