When I was growing up, domestic violence was neither talked about nor acknowledged. Yet, as I came to discover, I had close friends whose father beat his wife for many years. When I found out, I felt betrayed, like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Who knew that such a nice guy could do such an appalling thing; why would such a competent woman put up with it? And, why couldn't I have rescued, or at least have comforted, my childhood friends?
Now we know some of the answers to those questions, although it doesn't make their reality any easier. For instance, we know that women are likely to stay with their abusers because they are financially dependent on them or conditioned to be too afraid to cope with life on their own. Currently, 80 percent of domestic violence charges are dismissed in court, in part due to victims dropping the charges because they are scared and/or financially dependent.
Something else we have learned is that it is usually children who suffer the most from domestic violence. Oftentimes, children reproduce their parent's role as abuser or victim. But, also, my childhood friends always had other strange behavioral problems that, even as I grew older, I could never quite understand.
According to Gov. Bill Richardson's domestic violence czar, Sandra Gardner, New Mexico ranks third in the country for domestic violence-related homicides. We can't afford to lose our next generation to domestic violence, and we have to do something about it.
Clearly, we need to focus on helping women become unafraid and financially independent, and, at all costs, we need to keep children safe. But can we change violent behavior through prevention and treatment? And, if not, should we lock up perpetrators as a last attempt to change their behavior?
Rep. Mimi Stewart and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish think so. As part of Denish's domestic violence package, legislation this session calls for graduated penalties similar to those in place for DWI offenses. That is, for first-time convictions the penalty is mandatory treatment. Because $5 is taken from every traffic violation payment and put into a fund, there is currently about $700,000 designated for treatment in about 25 facilities across the state. For second-time convictions, there is mandatory 48-hour jail time. For third- and fourth-time convictions, there are one-month and six-month jail sentences, respectively. The bill was introduced last session and passed the House unanimously, but didn't make it all the way through the legislative process in time. This year, the hope is that the bill will pass in the shorter, 30-day session.
A second part of the package is Rep. Al Park's Substitute Address bill, which, for a $75 fee, gives domestic violence survivors a substitute address when applying for benefits, a driver's license or when registering to vote (apparently, indigent women can get the fee waived). This policy has been implemented in about 20 other states, and advocates and policymakers seem to agree that it helps increase the safety of survivors. The third and final part of the package is a $3 million appropriation (up 50 percent) to fund programs to help victims and children leave abusive situations statewide.
According to the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there were 26,940 domestic violence incidents reported to law enforcement in New Mexico in 2004—a rate of 15.3 per 1,000 people, an increase from 14.7 in 2003 and an average of 15.3 per 1,000 over the last four years (2001-2004). Of the 26,940 cases reported, 17,793 victims of domestic violence (66 percent) were identified. Injuries were involved in 32 percent (6,053) of the 19,081 reports that documented injury status according to law enforcement. This represents a 7 percent increase over the number of injuries reported in 2003. 75 percent of victims were female (as reported by law enforcement), while 94 percent of the adult victims served by domestic violence service providers were female. While 94 percent of the adult victims who sought help in 2004 were female, there was little gender distinction in the victimization of children: 49 percent were male, 51 percent were female.
There is no easy solution to this problem, but if DWI offenders have mandatory penalties, then domestic violence offenders should at least get the same. I hope Democrats and Republicans alike will join with Reps. Stewart and Park this session and pass this legislation.