New bill being written to strengthen domestic violence laws

Published 2:17 pm Friday, July 8, 2011

Mississippi penalties for misdemeanor domestic violence are too weak to make first offenders think twice about repeating their crimes.

According to Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence, some people charged with simple assault domestic violence — a misdemeanor — come into court and say: “Judge, it’s just a fine, a night in jail. It was worth it.”

Such comments speak volumes about how ineffective the misdemeanor penalties currently are. Yet experts say that nipping domestic violence in the bud, before it escalates, is crucial to breaking the cycle.

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Fortunately, efforts are under way to toughen the penalties for misdemeanor charges in Mississippi. State Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, is setting up meetings with law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to gather ideas for the next legislative session in January.

Penalties under the state’s felony law, meanwhile, impose up to five years in prison. In fact, the felony charge has been strengthened so that aggravated assault domestic violence is now defined as causing serious bodily harm not only with a weapon — but also by choking. This is an improvement. …

So what’s the remedy?

One promising idea is a program implemented by Pascagoula City Court called New Beginnings. It’s a nonprofit program, funded by a grant, that takes couples referred by an arresting officer and city prosecutor. Offenders can have their records cleared if they complete the program without another domestic violence arrest.

If such a plan could be extended statewide, it could attack the problem at its root while also offering an incentive for offenders to get back on track.

In the meantime, much higher fines and possibly a longer cooling-off period are certainly in order for those arrested for misdemeanor charges. Something has to be done to make people think twice before they resort to violence at home.