January 22

OUR OPINION: Maine lawmakers should close loophole in domestic violence law

Alleged abusers should not be allowed to contact victims.

The time period immediately following a domestic violence assault is crucial. It is when victims are most vulnerable, when they are trying to wrap their head around what just happened. They are trying to come to grips with the fact that a supposed loved one has hurt them, and they are considering life without that person. That usually means a severe disruption in how they live — where they sleep, where their kids stay, how they pay their bills.

The last thing they at that time is a call from their alleged abuser.

Now, following an arrest, people facing charges of domestic violence cannot contact alleged victims and ask them to hold back testimony or testify falsely. But before a judge puts bail conditions in place, they can, as Kennebec County District Attorney Meaghan Maloney notes, call and simply say, “I just want you to know I’m thinking of you.” That can be enough to sway or scare a victim struggling with how to react to a situation fraught with complex, conflicting feelings.

“For a victim who has been strangled and beaten, the words have a large and frightening impact,” Maloney said.

This scenario became more likely following a law change last year that requires judicial review of bail conditions for the most serious of domestic violence cases.

That new law was put in place so that the court understands the full scope of the case before setting bail, so that the appropriate bail conditions — including limitations on contacting victims — are given to accused offenders.

But that means that some people following arrest will wait as long as two days to see a judge, during which time they can now contact alleged victims. Laws are in place that punish people who attempt to coerce a victim, but nothing keeps them from calling a victim to say hello, with all that implies.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is now reviewing L.D. 1656, from state Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. The bill would close that gap, making it a crime for a person to contact alleged victims in any way while being detained before bail is set.

“We’ve identified this clear, fixable loophole,” Cain said this week. “It’s about making this protection constant.”

There are concerns that the bill would put undue restrictions on people who have yet to be found guilty of a crime. But as long as the law only applies to the most serious domestic violence cases, the state’s duty to protect victims should outweigh those concerns.

Every year in Maine there are around 5,500 reported cases of domestic violence assault. Every year, half of the murders committed in this state are the result of domestic violence.

Closing this loophole is a small but important part of keeping victims safe, and helping to bring those numbers down.

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