Because domestic violence often causes significant fear, harm and long-term damage to victims, both federal and state governments enact laws to prevent the act and punish convicted offenders. These laws are revised regularly to deter the crime and to more aggressively punish people who do commit the act.
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Federal Law Background
Modern federal law regarding the outlawing and punishment of domestic violence was codified under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA). The act was reauthorised in 2005. This federal law package beefed up resources to pursue prosecution of domestic violence offenders who were specifically charged with harming women. The law also beefed up law enforcement and legal resources in holding and detaining suspects with an established history of causing domestic harm. The Supreme Court trimmed the scope of this law to eliminate the included civil penalties in 2000, but the criminal law statutes were retained.
Current Federal Presence
The U.S. Department of Justice maintains a government presence guiding pursuit of domestic violence. The Justice Department established its Office on Violence Against Women and continues oversight of grant programs. The office promotes federal policy on how to address domestic violence and related issues such as date rape, assault and stalkers.
Laws and Sentencing
Domestic violence issues are generally prosecuted at the state level, so state sentencing rules dictate related punishments. Sentencing in most states depends on whether the perpetrator has been caught for the first time or after multiple, previous convictions for domestic violence related crimes. Sentencing also varies depending on how political the issue of domestic violence is in the state legislature.
A first-time offender usually gets two to three years of probation supervised by the court or local police department. Community service and rehabilitation classes for anger management are common, too.
Felonies are applied when the perpetrator already has a conviction record for domestic violence and continues being violent. Usually this involves escalation crimes beyond just a momentary domestic assault at home (e.g. a slap, push or one-contact hit) where the perpetrator has threatened serious harm or death, is stalking and/or has committed rape.
Sentencing and punishment can include jail time. The intent is to use the harshest punishment the court allows to make sure the domestic violence doesn't happen again. Monetary penalties and fines are common, since loss of cash can be just as painful as incarceration. According to the Los Angeles law firm Takakjian, Sowers & Sitkoff LLP, it's quite possible for a conviction to total thousands of dollars in penalties by the time the sentence is finalised.
Restrictions and Indirect Effects
Punishment for a domestic violence conviction can also be indirect. The conviction is a public record, and many employers try not to hire employees who have a known record for domestic violence. It can also be hard to get hired for at least seven years after a conviction.
Further, convicted persons cannot own a gun or handle one while on probation. Any violation of probation, including missing classes or failing drug tests can result in immediate jail. A non-citizen may also find residency revoked and get deported.
Between being unable to handle a weapon and the U.S. military's code of expected behaviour, a domestic violence conviction makes it impossible for a soldier to continue in a military function. The 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 creates a federal violation for handling a firearm once convicted of domestic violence charge, even as a misdemeanour.
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- The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), Title IV, sec. 40001-40703, reauthorised in 2005
- United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, pg 627.