AUGUSTA – Two bills before the Legislature seek to change the way domestic violence incidences are handled and prosecuted.

Too often, the victim is arrested instead of the assailant, said Rep. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn. She has a bill to encourage training police officers in determining the predominant aggressor.

Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, seeks to strengthen penalties by making domestic violence a defined crime, first offenses to be prosecuted as misdemeanors. It would turn into a felony, the bill states, if the aggressor has past convictions or faces a protection from abuse order.

Domestic violence is prosecuted now as assault or criminal threatening.

At a Wednesday public hearing, about 50 lobbyists, legislators, victims and supporters were in the audience, and the committee heard nearly two and a half hours of testimony.

Simpson’s bill calls for extra training for police officers.

John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, offered to take care of the problem without formal legislation. The committee asked him to talk to Simpson.

“An alternative to creating new statutory standards for determining the predominant aggressor would be to incorporate this new language as a standard in the board’s domestic violence policy…,” Rogers said.

If that were to happen, it would become part of full-time police officers’ training.

Domestic violence is prosecuted with other crimes, such as assault, stalking or criminal threatening, said Anne Jordan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety.

“Undoubtedly, a conviction for any one of those crimes is a serious matter,” she said. “However, the elements, and even names, of the crimes fail to appreciate or convey the context in which the crimes were committed.”

Advocacy groups threw their full support to the bills as well. Among the members was Gretchen Ziemer, legislative coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, who six weeks ago stood in front of at least 50 legislators during a news conference announcing the bills, and all cheered the effort.

“We strongly believe that there is not only a pressing need for officer training, but to maintain these procedures at the department level,” Ziemer testified on Simpson’s bill. “There is also the need to institute predominant aggressor analysis policies at all law enforcement agencies.”

The Maine Women’s Lobby also supported the effort.

“It will hold batterers accountable for their actions,” said Laura Harper, director of public policy.

Several legislators spoke on behalf of Edmonds’ bill.

“While I wish I could say that we can legislatively mandate stable families and happy homes. The reality is that we can’t,” said House Speaker Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of Edmonds’ bill. “But what we can do is provide protections to people who have to endure those households, and stop the violence being perpetrated against them.”

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