February 27, 2024

Lawmakers, advocates spar over domestic violence bill

DES MOINES (AP) — A House-backed measure that would increase penalties for repeat domestic abusers in Iowa is facing opposition from a group that advocates for domestic violence victims but opposes lengthening mandatory sentences.

The repeat abuser bill, which has been pushed by a woman whose boyfriend held her hostage several years ago, easily passed the state House on an 86-12 vote in early March. But since then it has remained in the Senate, where lawmakers have changed much of the bill’s provisions and are discussing additional changes that would reduce the emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences.

The House bill’s supporters argue that habitual offenders should serve at least 85 percent of their overall sentence, especially if they are seen as being likely to be violent once they leave prison. Others, though, question the value of longer sentences and maintain some victims are better off if their abuser isn’t imprisoned.

Tiffany Allison has been working for three years to toughen penalties for habitual abusers, prompted by her personal experience.

Allison dated a man for nine months before he took her hostage in 2009 and beat her for more than four hours. At his sentencing, Allison realized she wasn’t his first victim and that he had a history of abuse. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison but was released after 10 months.

Within a year of his release, he had abused another woman.

“This cannot happen again,” said Allison, who founded the Soaring Hearts Foundation, which advocates for victims of violence. “There is no reason as a state or a community that we should be allowing someone to have six victims before we actually really do something about it.”

A bill backed by Allison and introduced by Rep. Zach Nunn would require that a person convicted of a third or subsequent domestic abuse assault must spend a minimum of three years in prison. There would also be a five-year minimum prison term for a third stalking offense in a domestic relationship, and offenders would have to take a batterers course and complete a risk assessment before sentencing. The court would have to consider the risk assessment when determining release conditions.

“I think there absolutely is a need and a responsibility for the state to do something to ensure these individuals no longer get to prey upon the same victim over and over,” Nunn said.

Despite the House’s lopsided vote to approve the measure, some groups have sought changes.

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit group that provides training and assistance to domestic violence agencies, opposed the bill, saying that although it was well-intentioned, longer prison sentences don’t make abusers less dangerous.

“Speaking with certain victims, what we have seen is longer sentences don’t reduce recidivism,” said Lindsay Pingel, the coalition’s director of community engagement.

Leigh Goodmark, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said victims such as Allison should have the right to request that their abusers receive long prison terms, but that wasn’t the best option for all victims. For some victims, longer prison terms can create additional problems, said Goodmark, who has focused much of her work over the past 20 years on intimate partner violence and has written about the harms of criminalization and possible alternatives.

“That takes a wage earner out of the community, who might have to pay child support or might be contributing to the family in some other way,” she said. “It may be completely contrary to the wishes of the person who’s been abused.”

Criminalization doesn’t change behavior, Goodmark said.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but with several changes from the original bill. Committee chairman Sen. Steve Sodders is working to include additional amendments that change the minimum sentencing requirements. He said an amendment may allow a judge to impose anywhere from a one year minimum sentence, which is the current law for third-time offenders, up to a five year minimum.

“This would give judges a little leeway based on the facts of the case,” he said. “We have worked very hard not to increase or do more with minimum mandatory (sentences). There’s a lot of feeling that they simply don’t work and that it takes a lot of discretion away from the judge in all kinds of cases.”

Pingel said the coalition would be more open to supporting changes that give judges more discretion rather than be bound by mandatory minimums, but her group will need to know the details before deciding whether to support the final bill.

Allison said she also was open to changes but thought a risk assessment was essential to delay the release of inmates who likely will reoffend.

“Are we getting closer? Yes. Is it perfect? No,” Allison said.