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Measure called most comprehensive in a generation
An overhaul of the state’s domestic violence laws, including new bail guidelines and tougher penalties for abusers, unanimously cleared the Massachusetts House on Tuesday amid concerns from defense attorneys that the bill was hastily drafted and overly broad.
The measure, called the most comprehensive domestic violence legislation in a generation by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, was approved 142-0 and now goes to the Senate.
DeLeo said in introducing the bill with Attorney General Martha Coakley last week that it was spurred by the brutal stabbing death in Waltham of Jennifer Martel, allegedly at the hands of Jared Remy, the son of popular Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy.
Jared Remy, who has pleaded not guilty, was arrested one day after his release from custody on charges of assaulting Martel, and the case prompted questions about whether Remy’s violent history had been overlooked by the criminal justice system.
Among the many provisions in the bill is one that would require domestic assault suspects to be held for at least six hours after an arrest to allow time for a safety plan to be developed for the accuser. Bail commissioners would also be required to submit a written assessment of the safety risk a defendant might pose before release is granted.
“Victims often feel that they are neglected in the process, that they don’t have a say,” said state Rep. Christopher Markey, D-Dartmouth, during Tuesday’s debate. “I think this bill empowers victims to be able to do things they have never been able to do before.”
The measure also seeks to provide judges and prosecutors with the most complete information available about a defendant, including any prior domestic violence charges or restraining orders in one or several jurisdictions. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, had suggested that if more had been known about Remy’s past record, the course of events could have changed.
The House bypassed the normal process of referring the bill to a legislative committee process and holding a public hearing, instead taking it up as an amendment to an existing Senate bill.
“My overall concern is that (the bill) is being rushed through without looking at some of the more troublesome aspects of this,” said Liza Lunt, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
While the group supports several aspects of the proposal, including enhanced training for judges, court officials and prosecutors around domestic violence issues, Lunt said many other provisions go too far.
For example, the six-hour bail provision could be broadly interpreted to apply to family disputes or other cases that fall outside the typical definition of domestic violence, Lunt said.
The organization was also concerned with some of the stiffer penalties included in the bill and a broader definition of domestic violence that could include, as an example, an altercation between two roommates, Lunt said.
The House backed an amendment sought by the Gun Owners Action League that would allow women to purchase pepper spray as protection without first obtaining a firearms identification card.
The debate came two months after the House voted to expel one of its own, then state Rep. Carlos Henriquez of Boston, following his conviction in a domestic violence case. A proposed amendment to the bill calling for the automatic removal of any lawmaker convicted of domestic abuse was ruled unconstitutional by House leaders.