While there is growing awareness of domestic violence and the many resources available to victims and families, the epidemic persists across Louisiana. According to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, our state has one of the highest rates of domestic violence-related deaths — 71 in 2011. For women, the numbers are more severe: More than 80 percent of women murdered in Louisiana are killed by a husband, partner or ex-partner.
State lawmakers are considering five domestic violence bills filed by state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans. Moreno's legislation was partially written by the United Way of Southeast Louisiana's Public Policy Committee, which has worked on recommendations over the past year. State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, will handle the bills in the state Senate. Beginning this week, Moreno, vice-chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee, will present her bills to the committee. We urge passage of the following measures:
• House Bill 747 adds domestic abuse battery and domestic abuse aggravated assault to the list of crimes of violence. The bill also requires offenders to participate in a court-approved domestic abuse intervention program, and offenders face no less than 60 days to one year in prison (present law caps prison time at six months).
• House Bill 748 allows for exemplary civil damages to be awarded to "family or household" domestic abuse victims "when the injuries are caused by a wanton and reckless disregard for the rights and safety of the family or household member."
• House Bill 749 allows a domestic abuse victim to be granted an immediate divorce (rather than waiting 180 days under current law) "when a spouse or child has been physically or sexually abused by the other spouse" or "when a protective order or injunction has been issued against the other spouse."
• House Bill 750 requires law enforcement to arrest anyone who violates a protective order and increases the penalties for violating a protective order involving a battery or any other crime of violence. (Under HB 747, that would include domestic abuse.) The bill also requires law enforcement to arrest an abusing party when it "has reason to believe that a family or household member or dating partner has been abused and the abusing party is in violation of a protective order."
• House Bill 753 prohibits misdemeanor domestic abuse offenders and people subject to protective orders from possessing firearms. It also would require officers to remove guns from the scene of a domestic abuse call. Moreno says this bill aligns Louisiana with federal law.
Moreno says she is prepared for opposition from gun rights advocates who may use the "strict scrutiny" card against the measure. Last year, legislators and voters approved a constitutional amendment that gives gun ownership the strongest constitutional protection when gun rights are restricted. "We feel everything we're doing here meets that strict scrutiny we put in place," Moreno says, adding that similar restrictions in other states have reduced domestic violence-related deaths by 38 percent. "At the same time we feel the state does have a compelling interest to protect victims of domestic violence."
The New Orleans Police Department receives 10,000 to 11,000 domestic disturbance calls a year and makes 4,000 arrests. In 2012, New Orleans courts issued more than 3,400 protective orders. The local Family Justice Center's 24-hour crisis line (504-592-4005) receives 11,000 calls a year and directly serves more than 1,200 people a year. Louisiana's Metropolitan Center for Women and Children — which serves Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes — received 5,000 calls to its 24-hour crisis line (504-837-5400) and helped nearly 600 family members last year.
This is all good, but more needs to be done at the state level because residents of smaller, rural parishes don't have access to these resources. That's why Moreno also is working to create the Louisiana Commission to Prevent Domestic Violence. The commission will assess the state's resources and needs for preventing domestic abuse and recommend legislation and other measures to fill the gaps.
"This is by far the largest domestic violence bill and packet I've ever worked on," Moreno says. "It's time for Louisiana to stop being at the bottom for something like [domestic violence]. Let's do something where we're one of the leaders as far as prevention. I understand we're not going to save everyone, but if we can save just a few people, isn't that enough? Isn't that a huge success right there?"
Yes, it is. We hope lawmakers will give these bills the support they deserve.
— For more on the problem of domestic abuse in New Orleans and Louisiana, see Gambit's ongoing series at www.bestof-neworleans.com/dv.