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Domestic violence laws get tough

No amount of legislation or court orders are going to stop a man from beating, or even killing, his wife or girlfriend. As Circuit Judge Hale Stancil notes, "It's a piece of paper. It's not bulletproof."

But authorities believe a batch of new laws that took effect Saturday will make it easier for them to punish offenders and protect victims.

That's good news in Citrus County, where the number of reported incidents of domestic violence has jumped nearly 44 percent since 1992, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Judi McBride, the victims' advocate for the Citrus County state attorney's office, sees the numbers go up each year and feels the frustration of victims who believe they've been let down by the system.

"They want the violence to stop," McBride said. "These new laws give us more latitude to see that it does."

Designed to make the system easier for victims to navigate, the laws give authorities more power to arrest, detain and prosecute offenders. Under the new laws, authorities can now:

Arrest without a warrant abusive spouses who violate a domestic violence injunction.

Hold offenders without bail until the first appearance hearing.

Prosecute more vigorously people who violate an injunction.

Place offenders in state-certified batterers intervention programs.

Another section of the law makes it a discriminatory act for an insurance agency to drop a woman's coverage because she has been the victim of domestic abuse.

In addition, the law prohibits anyone with a domestic violence injunction against them from buying a firearm. The law also requires that injunctions be listed as part of criminal records.

That's important because, previously, a judge could hear a case involving a person who had such an injunction against them and the judge wouldn't know about it, McBride said.

The no-bail provision also is vital, officials say, because it gives the victim of abuse more time to get to a safe place.

Prevention is the goal

Besides punishing the abusers, authorities are seeking ways to prevent the attacks from recurring. They see the batterers intervention program as key.

The program forces batterers to take responsibility for their actions, said Robin Hassler, executive director of the task force on domestic violence.

"These programs focus on behavior and makes them accountable," she said.

The Department of Corrections will be responsible for certifying and monitoring the 29-week programs, which are designed to help an abusive person learn how to correct his or her violent behavior.

Weekly counseling sessions are to be conducted in group settings, the law states, where a facilitator emphasizes issues of power and control and abusers are held accountable for their actions.

Batterers will be required to pay the cost of the program and check in periodically with the court to have their progress monitored.

Even if the program doesn't work for everyone, it is a good start, said Margie Henghold, head of the domestic violence unit for the Dade County state attorney's office.

"You're retraining men not to beat their wives, plain and simple," she said.

Getting the programs in place is going to be the hard part, considering the legislation does not provide funding. Citrus County now refers batterers to counseling, but whether those programs meet the new state guidelines remains to be seen.

Dade County already has a comprehensive domestic violence program in place, but smaller counties, like Citrus, may have a tougher time, Henghold said.

Counties will have until July 1996 to comply with the batterers intervention portion of the law.

"It's revolutionary legislation, but you've got to provide what the law states," Henghold said. "Without a place to send women, without a batterers intervention program, you're not helping anybody."

More weapons against abuse

One way lawmakers hope to help victims is by simplifying the process of enforcing an injunction against an abusive spouse.

The law allows the state attorney 20 days to determine whether to prosecute the batterer but also returns the criminal contempt power, which was taken away in 1991, to the court.

This means a judge can impose penalties for violation of an injunction, a first-degree misdemeanor, even without a decision to prosecute by the state attorney's office.

Going to a victim's home or office, as well as phoning or writing the victim, is considered a violation under the new law.

"That is an important step," Judge Stancil said Friday as he signed two arrest orders for abusers who violated injunctions against them.

"This one here says, "He beat my face and he's threatening to kill me.' The state attorney's office might not be able to prosecute that, but we can have a hearing on it within 30 days," Stancil said.

"The longer you wait, the less impact you're going to have on these people."

One portion of the law should have a direct impact on the amount of time offenders spend in jail, Henghold said, referring to sections dealing with the charge of aggravated stalking.

The misdemeanor charge of stalking is upgraded to aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony, when there is an injunction against the stalker. A person also is charged with aggravated stalking when there is a threat to kill.

Under the new law, aggravated stalking carries a minimum three-year sentence if it is committed with a firearm. The crime also now qualifies an abuser for sentencing as a habitual offender. Prosecutors also can add aggravated stalking to their list of what constitutes a forcible felony and to felony murder cases.

"It basically gives the prosecutor another charge to file in these cases," Henghold said. "Aggravated stalking is an extremely violent crime and needs to be treated that way."

A problem close to home

In Citrus County, reported incidents of domestic violence are spiraling skyward. In 1992, the first year such statistics were kept, there were 355 reported incidents. That included one murder, four rapes, 74 incidents of aggravated assault and 258 incidents of assault.

The following year, the number of incidents increased to 457, and last year the number was 510.

Stancil said he wants abusers to know that Citrus County is taking domestic violence seriously. He has rewritten the injunction order to state more clearly the consequences a person will face for violating it.

"It has a psychological effect if they see on there, for certain offenses, they could face life imprisonment," Stancil said. "They might take it more seriously."

At the same time, Stancil knows that injunction orders don't always work.

"There's that 10 percent that aren't going to care," he said.