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2013-10-21 / Opinion

Guest Commentary

State Senator James L. Seward

Since 1987, our nation has observed October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This year, a number of celebrities, athletes, corporate leaders, and concerned advocates have joined forces in the battle against domestic violence with a dramatic new series of public service announcements that feature the NO MORE symbol, the first unified branding symbol (like the pink breast cancer ribbon) related to this important issue.

Along with raising public awareness, I wanted to let you know what I'm doing here in New York to help protect women and families, and to ensure that domestic violence offenders are appropriately punished for their crimes.

Last year, a landmark law was enacted to provide important new protections to the victims of this terrible crime, while also establishing stronger criminal penalties for those who commit domestic violence. It includes several important provisions:

Establishing within the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence a domestic violence fatality review team to examine factors involved in domestic violence homicides and suicides and make recommendations;

Expanding factors courts must consider when determining recognizance or bail for domestic violence crimes. The court must consider and take into account any prior violations of orders of protection and the defendant’s history of use or possession of a firearm;

Prohibiting a person who was served with an order of protection or arrested or charged in the death of a decedent from controlling the person’s remains;

Creating a new crime of aggravated family offense committed when one commits a “specified offense” and has been convicted of one or more such offenses within the immediately preceding five years. Aggravated family offense is a class E felony. The victim does not have to be the same person or member of the same family or household;

Among the crimes considered to be a "specified offense" are the following: assault; menacing; reckless endangerment; stalking; strangulation; manslaughter; murder; sexual misconduct; rape; sexual abuse; unlawful imprisonment; burglary; predatory sexual assault of a child; and harassment;

Increasing the crime of harassment from a violation to a class A misdemeanor, where the defendant and victim are members of the same family or household;

Allowing a victim of domestic violence to request an alternative mailing address, telephone number or other contact information to receive specific health claim and billing information.

In an effort to build upon this new statute, this year I voted to approve an historic nine-point Women’s Equality plan that would strengthen orders of protection, and prevent housing discrimination against domestic violence victims. Now that the state senate has taken action on these bills, I'm leading the effort to get the state assembly to take action as well.

The senate also passed a bill to protect domestic violence victims while they testify in court against their alleged abusers. The legislation defines domestic violence victims as “vulnerable witnesses” so that they may use closed-circuit televisions to testify. This way, the victims would not face the risk of further intimidation by the domestic violence perpetrators by having to see them in person, sometimes sitting within arm’s length. Statistics indicate that many victims fear coming forward to testify against their abusers because of the fear of reprisal. If the state assembly joins the senate and adopts this measure and it is signed into law, victims would have a new courtroom shield to help protect them.

There are a number of local resources in our community to assist victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. New York State also operates a toll free hotline, 1-800-942-6906, which is staffed 24 hours a day. Additional information and help can be found online through the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence website at http://www.nyscadv.org.

By toughening our laws -- and continuing to increase public awareness -- we will better protect victims of domestic violence, while also bringing perpetrators of this terrible crime to justice.

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