Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Violence Against Women Act: What is it and why should Congress renew it?

In 1994, the United States Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act, which was the first U.S. federal legislation criminalizing domestic violence and sexual assault, and assigned federal resources to combat violence against women on a community level.  It was reauthorized in 2000, and again in 2005 (read the text of the 2005 version).  The 2005 version which recently expired, also addressed dating violence and stalking, expanded services to include children and teenagers, and established funding for rape crisis centers.

Since this legislation was recently allowed to expire by Congress, it's important that you know what we are losing and why it was allowed to expire.  If after reading about the benefits of this Act and the reasoning for letting it expire you think Congress made a mistake by not renewing the Violence Against Women Act, then we encourage you to contact your representatives and tell them your opinion.

The Violence Against Women Act - What it Does:

The Violence Against Women Act aims to reduce violence and the impacts of violence through the funding of services and through the criminalization, on the federal level, of such acts.

The criminal provisions include strengthening federal penalties for repeat sex offenders and a number of provisions intended to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on victims.  The provisions that favor the rights of victims include requiring recognition of protective orders across state borders, prohibiting charging victims for rape exams or the service of protective orders, and the creation of a federal "rape shield law."  Rape shield laws prevent defendants from using the sexual history of victims against them at rape trials.

Since rape is often unreported, these types of victim protections are necessary to encourage victims to participate in the prosecution of these crimes and to simultaneously reduce the continuing impact that this violence has on the life of the victims.

Part of the funding provisions also relate directly to criminal enforcement.  The Act funds training for police, prosecutors and judges so that they understand the impact and realities of domestic and sexual violence, and helps fund dedicated units for enforcement and prosecution of these crimes.  Without these additional resources many law enforcement and prosecution units will not be able to make arrests and properly prosecute these crimes in a timely manner.

In addition, the Act funds services which directly impact victims.  For example, the Act established and provides funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which handles over 22,000 calls per month.

The Violence Against Women Act - How has it Helped:

In addition to the significant number of victims and potential victims served by the hotline, the Act has helped any victim who was protected by criminal justice provisions both at the federal and state level since 1994.  The Act has led to the reform of laws in all states relating to domestic and sexual violence, stalking, and criminal violations for violations of protective orders.  In Massachusetts, these laws and resources are summarized on the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries page.

Statistically since the enactment of the Act, there have been lower rates of domestic violence (a 67% reduction in intimate partner violence from 1993 to 2010).  This has also resulted in a reduction in intimate partner homicides (a 35% decrease in the murder of women and 46% reduction in the murder of men from 1993 to 2007).

But statistics don't tell the whole story.  Every act of violence that didn't occur because of the training and funding provided by the Act is a victim whose life is immeasurably improved.  And every victim who experience an improved and more effective criminal justice system, is one more victim whose trauma was reduced.

The Violence Against Women Act - Why did it Expire:

So you might be asking yourself, who would be against these improvements in the life of victims and potential victims?

In April 2012, the U.S. Senate voted to reauthorize the Act.  However, the House of Representatives passed an amended version which omitted certain provisions of the Senate version.    The Senate bill included provisions that would extend the protections of the Act to include members of the LGBT community, Native Americans living on reservations, and illegal immigrants.  The House (primarily the Republican representatives) essentially forced the expiration of the Act by refusing to compromise on these provisions.

On the one hand, you might wonder why the Act couldn't be renewed without these provisions and then these portions fought out separately.  On the other hand, you might also wonder what's objectionable about adding protections for traditionally under-served groups (rates of violence amount the LGBT community, Native Americans, and illegal immigrants are all higher than the rest of the population, and all less likely to be prosecuted).

At the end of the day, the most troubling of all is Congress playing chicken with itself over such an important and impactful issue.  A Congress that was dedicated to protecting families, children, and victims would not let this Act expire.

If you're as outraged as we are, then tell your representatives that you favor protecting women and families and children, regardless of where they live, or how they got here, or who they live with. Contact your representatives and tell them that it's not okay for Congress to ignore victims.

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