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New Jersey Looks To Strengthen Protections For Domestic Violence Victims

New Jersey lawmakers on the state and federal levels have advanced measures aimed at better protecting victims of domestic violence from their former abusers.

As a way to protect survivors of domestic violence while their assailants await trial, S-2503 seeks to make the penalties steeper for strangulation assault when committed in the context of a domestic violence incident.

The bill—sponsored by Sens. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), Joe Cryan (D-20) and Sandra Cunningham (D-31)—would change the crime from a third-degree offense to a second-degree one and make it punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, a fine of up to $150,000 or both.

State Penalties

Under current law, those found guilty face up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000 or both.

The law was changed back in 2017, when the state increased strangulation from a disorderly persons offense, punishable by a six month prison term and $1,000 fine, to a third degree crime.

The State Senate unanimously passed the measure Jan. 28 and a companion bill is currently under review by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Domestic Violence

Cryan, a former Union County Sheriff, said strangulation is a “brutal and violent” attack that is often an act of domestic violence that escalates “if they are not prevented and stopped.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, strangulation is the fourth leading cause of homicide. Of the 12 million cases of domestic violence reported in the U.S. annually, about 1.5 million victims say they were strangled or choked.

A report from New Jersey Domestic Violence Fatality Near Fatality Review Board found that strangulation is “one of the strongest predictors for the subsequent homicide of victims of domestic violence.”  Additionally, victims of attempted strangulation are seven times more likely of becoming a homicide victim, when compared to victims without a strangulation history.

Notifying Victims

Cryan added, “The courts should have the ability to protect survivors from repeated attacks before they become tragically fatal.”

In the state Assembly, legislation is being considered that would ensure victims are notified when an individual charged with domestic violence is set to have a weapon returned to them.

Under A-3687, individuals who petition for extreme risk protection orders or are victims of alleged domestic violence incidents would be notified at least 10 days before seized or surrendered weapons are returned to their owner.

Prosecutors Role

After a person is charged with domestic violence, police may seize their weapons, which are then transferred to county prosecutors. But, if prosecutors do not file for forfeiture within 45 days, the weapons are returned.

Firearms are given back if charges are dropped, a defendant is found not guilty or a court determines a domestic violence situation no longer exists.

In those situations, A-3687 would require prosecutors to let victims know what was happening.

On Jan. 27, the bill was advanced by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee and sent to the Assembly Speaker. A companion bill introduced in November 2020 has been referred to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

Vainieri Huttle Co-Sponsors

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), the bill’s co-sponsor, said, “Not surprisingly, guns are often used to intimidate and threaten victims of domestic violence. Abusers will use these dangerous weapons to try to hurt and control their victims, thereby posing an even bigger threat to their partner or family members.”

“Those who are most at risk for violence deserve to know when a firearm will be returned to their abuser, so they can take steps to try to protect themselves,” she said.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 4.5 million American women who are still alive have been threatened by a domestic partner with a firearm, with one million of them actually being shot at by their abuser. And, the risk of a woman being killed increases by 400% if an abuser has access to a firearm.

Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli (D-15), the bill’s co-sponsor, said, “Although the goal is to keep guns out of an abuser’s hands in the first place, our state must do everything we can to protect victims of domestic violence in any situations where that goal is not possible.”

Federal Action

The move in Trenton follows U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker were among a group of Democratic lawmakers that demanded the U.S. Department of Homeland Security begin enforcing the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars anyone with a domestic violence conviction from possessing firearms.

The law, after the late New Jersey U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, applies to all individuals, including federal law enforcement officials, convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse.

In a Feb. 5 letter, the senators wrote, “Regrettably, some of the nation’s law enforcement agencies charged with protecting the public have failed to comply with this important law. We request that DHS act swiftly to ensure that federal law enforcement meaningfully addresses domestic violence within its ranks.”

Their request follows a 2020 discovery by the DHS that Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not screen agents for domestic violence convictions.

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