Governor Ralph Northam vetoed a bill yesterday that would have imposed mandatory minimum sentences on repeat domestic abusers on the grounds that racial minorities would be disproportionately affected.
I nearly headlined this post, “Northam to Domestic Abuse Victims: Drop Dead.” I decided that wouldn’t be quite fair. But I wouldn’t be surprised if many people interpret his action that way.
Thanks to Northam’s veto, Virginia might be “fairer and more equitable” to perpetrators of domestic violence. But will it be “fairer and more equitable” to victims? The data is patchy, but considerable evidence suggests that African-Americans are roughly twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence as whites. One could argue that creating racial “equity” for African-American criminals creates inequity for African-American victims, primarily females.
“In recent weeks, I have visited with community leaders across the state seeking input on how I can best use the power of the governor’s office to make our commonwealth fairer and more equitable for communities of color,” wrote Northam in a Washington Post op-ed. “My commitment today will not solve all of the issues with our criminal justice system, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.”
House Bill 2042 would have imposed a 60-day mandatory minimum for assault and battery against a family or household member for someone with a prior assault and battery conviction in recent years. “While violence is unacceptable, these are crimes that can be addressed by a judge with full knowledge of the facts and circumstances of each particular case,” said Northam, who, in the wake of his blackface scandal, has vowed to pursue racial justice.
The 2017 Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia” report does not distinguish between “domestic” and other crimes. While not all female victims of violent crimes would fall into the “domestic violence” classification, a high percentage would. In Virginia, 56 African-American women were victims of murder or nonnegligent manslaughter that year; 1,243 were victims of forcible sex offenses; and 2,018 were victims of aggravated assault. Many aggravated assault victims (of all races) were classified as a “spouse” (505) or “boyfriend/girlfriend” (1,330).
Those numbers may under-state the actual rate of domestic violence. As the Domestic Shelters website notes, domestic violence often goes unreported. The nonprofit estimates that 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. If Virginia women experience domestic violence at the same rate as women in other states, that implies more than 32,000 incidents a year in the Old Dominion.
By framing domestic violence as a racial issue, Northam makes it more difficult to protect female victims of domestic abuse — be they black, white, Hispanic or Asian.
“This was a bipartisan effort to protect women from their abusers,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “Republicans and Democrats in the House as well as the Senate sent this bill to the Governor’s desk by huge majorities. His veto today is unconscionable.” (More than 30 House Democrats joined a unanimous cohort of Republican delegates use in voting for the bill.)
But Northam’s priority is reducing the number of African-Americans in jails and prisons. “Mandatory minimums are focused on punishment, not rehabilitation,” he said in his op-ed.
We must continue to prepare returning citizens to be successful members of the community. And we must work harder to address the mental health and substance-use disorders that often lead people into our criminal justice system.
We need to focus on evidence-based approaches that ensure equitable treatment under the law. And we must focus on ways to rehabilitate returning citizens, particularly nonviolent ones. I want to give our judges, appointed by the Virginia General Assembly, the appropriate discretion over sentencing decisions. We must remember that punishment and justice are not always the same thing. We are better as a society when we give our judicial system the ability to discern the difference.
That’s a nice theory. Let’s hope it works. I look forward to seeing Northam identify the specific “evidence-based approaches” to rehabilitating wife beaters — he mentioned none in his op-ed — that he proposes to implement. Likewise, I look forward to seeing his proposals to fund those programs. Just to be on the safe side, in case the therapeutic approach doesn’t work, he might consider setting aside a little extra money for battered-women shelters.
Update: House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights has published his own op-ed in the Washington Post. among the key points he made:
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Under this legislation, abused women would have confidence that should their partner abuse them again within 10 years, they would have a minimum of 60 days of respite. Two months to find a new place to live. Two months to file an order of protection. Two months to end an abusive relationship once and for all, without fear of reprisal.
Two months to move on. Two months to start living again.
Data from the Virginia Sentencing Commission shows that, had this been law from 2017-2018, 1,513 offenders would have been sentenced to a minimum of 60 days in jail. That’s more than 1,500 victims who would have had a chance to break free from the cycle of violence. …
The governor … calls for “data-driven” and “evidenced-based” policies. The evidence and data are clear: Virginia has the fourth-lowest violent crime rate in the country and the lowest three-year recidivism rate in the country.
Our tough and clear sentences are strong deterrents, and this bill would have sent a clear signal to those who abuse their family members.