New Jersey lawmakers advanced a series of bills Thursday designed to cut down on domestic violence, with the case of a former football star punching his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City casino in the backdrop.
The Assembly Women and Children Committee unanimously advanced five bills, including one to require counseling for people convicted of domestic violence. Now, counseling is often a condition for those who strike plea bargains, but not for those convicted by a judge or jury.
"We're saying to those who are offenders, to those in homes where there have been offenders that we're taking this seriously," said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a Democrat from Cherry Hill and the chairwoman of the committee. "It doesn't end when somebody is incarcerated. It continues when they get out on parole."
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She noted that the committee scheduled the hearing on the package of bills before this week's disclosure of a video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City earlier this year. Rice, who has since married the woman he was seen hitting and dragging out of an elevator, was released this week by the team and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
Committee members and speakers at Thursday's hearing -- most of them people who provide support services for victims of abuse -- referenced the Rice video.
Assemblywoman Carolyn Casagrande, a Republican from Colts Neck, said there may need to be more laws as well as better enforcement of existing domestic violence statutes.
"When you actually watch a tape of a woman being knocked unconscious and then know you are part of a system that produced laws that allows a man to walk free," she said, "that's a failure or breakdown between this state house and the courthouse."
A New Jersey State Police report found that there were 70,000 reported domestic violence crimes in 2011. Most were assault or harassment, but the numbers included 40 homicides.
Another measure in the bills being considered would allow victims of domestic violence who are accused of crime against their batterers to claim self-defense. One provision would a let some domestic violence victims who are in prison or jail out of custody if they meet certain conditions.
The legislation also would require police to check to see if people they are arresting are subject to restraining orders.
Officials from the state judiciary said there were some complications with one bill that would allow victims in domestic violence cases to testify via closed circuit television rather than in person. They said it would mean higher costs for local courts and that many municipal courts do not have space for such a setup.
Lawmakers suggested that towns could share facilities for that purpose.
Bernadette Maull, who works for the Camden County Women's Center, said that abusers sometimes signal subtly to those testifying against them that they will be abused for their actions.
"The ability to use closed-circuit TV can literally mean life and death for our victims," she said.