Victims of domestic violence may not be safe after an arrest is made.

Last summer in Dexter, a kindergarten teacher and her two children were murdered by her husband. At the time he was at liberty awaiting trial on domestic-violence-related charges. In the wake of this tragedy, legislators are considering how Maine’s archaic bail system can be improved to increase safety for victims.

The problem of domestic abuse is not unique to Maine. Year after year, all across the country, the headlines are full of heartbreaking news about family violence.

Domestic violence is a serious and costly problem that hurts us all. Roughly half of the state’s homicides each year are lethal incidents of domestic violence. In addition, more than 5,000 domestic assaults are reported to law enforcement agencies in Maine each year, which equates to about one assault report every 102 minutes.

Victims of domestic violence are predominantly female and come from all walks of life. Children exposed to domestic violence are particularly vulnerable. These children are more likely to experience developmental delays, learning and behavior problems and other adverse emotional, psychological and physical issues. Chronic exposure to domestic abuse has been shown to cause changes in the brain development of young children.

When a child’s lifelong potential is diminished, it hurts us all. It may also contribute to the need for greater public expenditures for education, health care, law enforcement and court services.

A person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The bail process exists to protect that important presumption. Bail is set to assure a defendant appears in court, but the safety of victims and the community are also supposed to be protected in the process. However, to do this, adequate relevant information must be available regarding the risk an individual poses.

As the deaths of Amy, Coty and Monica Lake tragically illustrated, victims of domestic violence may not be safe after an arrest has been made. Indeed, the time between an arrest and a trial can be particularly dangerous because domestic violence tends to escalate when a perpetrator feels he is losing control.

During this session, state legislators have the opportunity to increase safety for victims of domestic violence and their children by making some long overdue changes in the bail system. The proposed changes include having judges, rather than bail commissioners, decide bail in cases of domestic violence, and having the defendant’s criminal history available for consideration.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, LD 1711 is a bill that would require law enforcement officers to administer a standardized domestic-violence risk assessment at the time of arrest and to report the results when the defendant’s bail is being considered.

This kind of specialized risk assessment would provide meaningful information about risk that should be considered when bail is being addressed.

Since domestic violence is an under-reported crime, the results of a domestic violence risk assessment may be more pertinent than a defendant’s criminal history.

Under LD 1711, members of the Maine Commission on Sexual and Domestic Abuse would decide which risk assessment tool will be used. One measure they may consider is the Ontario Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment. This 13-question, yes-no risk scale was developed specifically for use by law enforcement officers in the field to determine a defendant’s likelihood of re-offending against his current alleged victim.

The ODARA is a brief, practical, cost-effective and reliable tool to flag cases where heightened safeguards are warranted.

The deaths of Amy Lake and her children were preventable. We must not let their deaths be in vain.

Proposed changes to the bail system will offer better protection for families threatened by domestic violence. In particular, I urge legislators to support LD 1711, an act to mandate the use of standardized domestic-violence risk assessments in the management of domestic violence crimes.

Bridget O’Rourke is a licensed attorney and a guardian ad litem who practices in central Maine. She handles many cases involving families with children who have experienced domestic abuse. She lives in Wayne.

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