Assault On Domestic Violence

Lawmakers snickered two years ago when Democratic Senator Carolyn Walker introduced a bill making it a crime for a husband to rape his wife. "Oh, you can't rape your wife anymore, ha, ha, ha," she remembers hearing. "You're damn right you can't," she shot back. Walker says she isn't hearing any snickers this year, as she's introduced a record number of bills aimed at recognizing domestic violence as a serious crime. "People are paying more attention to this issue now," she says. "Maybe it's because more outspoken women are talking."

Among the most outspoken is attorney Dianne Post, who heads the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence and authored most of the proposed legislation. "If these bills pass, Arizona will have moved to the forefront on domestic violence," she says. "If they don't, it will send a very negative message that Arizona doesn't care about the problem and men can continue to beat women with impunity."

Normally, two to three bills a year are introduced dealing with domestic violence, Post says, but this year, eight bills were introduced in the Senate and two more in the House. Most are sponsored by Democratic women, although Republican Senator Jacque Steiner says she was ready to sign on as a sponsor but was inadvertently left off.

Although she says "it's too soon to measure the attitude of the legislature," Steiner says lawmakers are more aware of the problem and "want to see laws in place to help control that kind of ugliness."

Senate Judiciary chairman Leo Corbet, whose committee will be assigned the bills, says he expects to hear them all, even though they're sponsored by Democrats. (Committee chairmen have the power to kill legislation simply be refusing to call the bill up for a hearing.)

But both Steiner and Corbet voiced caution. "The danger I see is that everyone is pushing for not too long a session," Steiner says. "And with the tax issues before us, there's a danger other issues will not be reviewed." Corbet wonders whether lawmakers would favor stiffer penalties and prison time for repeat offenders when the state prisons already are overcrowded. But he says he's willing to listen.

Post has lined up support for many of the bills from two powerful voices: the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office--both of which are controlled by Republicans. With that support, she expects the bills to get extra attention.

"On a practical level, the effect of passage of these bills will bear fruit in the next couple of years as the new policies would go into effect," she said. "But there would be an immediate psychological effect on victims, women advocates and the batterers."

The bills cover virtually every legal problem identified in a New Times investigation of domestic violence published last December. The stories included an examination of the 29 domestic homicides in Phoenix during 1989--about one fourth of all murders in the city. In all, fifteen women were killed by men they once loved; five husbands or boyfriends were killed by women who claimed self-defense; three children died in domestic brawls; two friends giving shelter to abused women were killed; a husband was killed by his wife's protector; a father killed his stepson; an adopted son killed his mother; a sister killed her brother; and four men committed suicide after killing loved ones.

The stories noted that an abuser can repeatedly beat his wife bloody and still be charged with only a misdemeanor unless he permanently disfigures her or picks up a weapon--and in this state, hands and feet are not considered weapons, no matter how big and powerful. (One of the new bills would change that.) Because abuse is just a minor crime, judges can't deny bail to even repeat abusers.

Women advocates note that the way the system now works, an abuser can be arrested, arraigned and released within hours, giving his victim no time to seek help or shelter. Post says two national studies--including one by a commission that included Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega--have said the two biggest deterrents to repeated attacks are immediate removal from the scene and time--a cooling-off period. The major domestic violence bill includes several provisions:

* A minimum of 24 hours behind bars for anyone arrested on a domestic violence charge. The law currently allows a maximum hold of 24 hours.

* Stiffer penalties for repeat offenses. A second conviction would impose a fine of up to $500 and a jail term of up to six months or both; a third conviction would carry a fine of up to $50,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, or both. Currently, there is no escalation of penalties from the misdemeanor limit of up to six months in jail.

* A "shall arrest" policy by police when there's probable cause that an attack occurred. Phoenix police say they informally have such a policy now, but many other departments do not.

* Arrest of only the "primary aggressor." Post says there have been numerous incidents where police have arrested both the abuser and the victim, or sometimes only the victim.

Other bills would:
* Include self-defense in a domestic brawl under the state law that allows "justifiable force" to prevent a crime. Post cites a recent Tucson case in which a woman who stabbed her husband as he was beating her was convicted of murder. When she appealed under the justifiable-force law, the appeals court said that law didn't apply because it was meant for homeowners protecting property against burglars.

* Extend the state's confidentiality laws to counselors in domestic violence shelters. Licensed counselors cannot be compelled to disclose information from their clients. But no such privilege now exists for unlicensed counselors. "If you're rich, you can afford to go to a licensed counselor and your communication is privileged," Post says, "but if you're poor, you'll go to a crisis center and it isn't."

* Allow the court to consider evidence of domestic violence in determining child custody and visitation rights. A companion bill would allow the court to terminate custody and visitation rights to a parent convicted of any form of child abuse.

* Establish the Governor's Council on Victims' Assistance, which would develop a statewide plan to improve services to crime victims.

Steiner says lawmakers "want to see laws in place to help control that kind of ugliness."

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Jana Bommersbach