Amid the bad news that came out of Baton Rouge during the recent legislative session, there was some good news for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Lawmakers passed several bills that increase penalties against abusers and provide stronger protections for victims. We hope Gov. Bobby Jindal will sign them all.
State Rep. Helena Moreno's House Bill 842 expands the definition of "household member" so that victims now include anyone formerly living in the household, and it adds "written messages" to the list of acts that constitute the crime of stalking. The bill also significantly increases penalties for violations of protective orders and provides that anyone arrested for domestic abuse battery will be fingerprinted, which allows for better tracking of repeat offenders. House Bills 143 and 835 address the problem of sexual assault victims being billed for rape examinations by dedicating several sources of funds for those examinations.
"This sexual assault legislation was the most difficult and comprehensive package of bills that I have ever tackled," Moreno told Gambit. "Problems have persisted on so many levels throughout the state for so long, it took months of work with stakeholders just to uncover all the issues that needed to be corrected. ... I hope this will lead to major reform so that victims can receive the care and treatment they deserve."
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome's Senate Bill 174 significantly expands protections for renters who are victims of domestic violence and subsequently face eviction. This measure appeared dead at one point, but United Way of Southeast Louisiana Public Policy Committee Chairwoman Kim Sport helped revive it by striking a compromise with landlords. Among other things, the bill allows landlords to evict abusers immediately — but a landlord cannot refuse to lease or renew a lease simply because a tenant is a victim of domestic abuse. The bill applies only to apartment houses with four or more units, but it is a milestone for victims of domestic abuse.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell's legislative package included sweeping reforms in sexual assault legislation, particularly on college campuses. He wrote resolutions creating a task force to study how campuses respond to and discipline sexual assault, requiring the Council on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to update sexual assault response training programs for campus police, and mandating that criminal justice agencies (including campus police) send annual reports to the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice. The reports must include all available information about rape kits — particularly how many have been tested and remain to be tested.
Elsewhere, lawmakers passed bills allowing an immediate divorce for victims of physical or sexual abuse or those who have had a protective order issued during a marriage. In addition, judges may now make abusers pay all attorney fees and costs in such actions for immediate divorce.
The biggest disappointment for advocates of domestic abuse victims was the National Rifle Association's staunch (and successful) opposition to provisions that would take away firearms from many domestic abusers and stalkers. As Sport noted, such provisions would undoubtedly save lives — but the NRA's political influence trumped those concerns. We hope future efforts on behalf of victims will yield even better results.