By Chelsea Diana
BOSTON -- Local lawmakers and police officials see a plan to strengthen the state's domestic-violence laws as an important step to keep victims safe even after their attacker has been taken into custody.
"Domestic violence is a problem that is with us all the time and is in every level of the community," said Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, who has submitted several bills this session aimed at preventing domestic abuse and imposing harsher penalties on abusers.
Atkins said any time is a good time to strengthen domestic-violence laws, but changes are especially needed in times of economic instability.
"It is a socioeconomic issue that affects us in bad socioeconomic times and in good, but more so in bad," she said.
The bill, up for a vote today was drafted by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Attorney General Martha Coakley after last summer's murder of Jennifer Martel, a Waltham mother allegedly stabbed by her boyfriend, Jared Remy.
Remy, son of Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy, is accused of murdering Martel the night after being arraigned in Waltham District Court for slamming her face into a mirror. The day she was murdered, Martel did not appear in court to renew an emergency restraining order against Remy. He was released on personal recognizance and allegedly attacked Martel later that day.
The case prompted DeLeo to look at the state's laws concerning domestic violence and restraining orders.
"What we have in this legislation, in terms of strengthening awareness of domestic violence, I would be pretty much surprised if the Jared Remys of the world would be allowed to walk as they have in the past," DeLeo said to reporters after outlining the bill at a news conference last week.
The House bill would require authorities to keep a suspect in custody for at least six hours after being arrested before being released on bail, to allow time for the alleged victim to get a safety plan in order. If bail is approved, it must include a written evaluation of the safety risks posed by a defendant's release.
The bill would also increase the penalty for an attack by strangulation, establish employment leave for victims of domestic abuse, and require biennial law-enforcement training in dealing with domestic abusers.
DeLeo had been working on the bill since late last summer. The Senate approved a similar bill in October.
Lowell Police Superintendent William Taylor said the new provisions are a welcome addition, particularly a change that allows a first-time offender to be charged with domestic violence rather than a general charge of assault.
Taylor said having the first offense on the record would give police an opportunity to narrow charges in a second offense and take action to keep victims safe.
"Certainly, domestic violence in the city of Lowell is a chronic crime issue that we face," Taylor said. "So I think the bill will be greatly appreciated here."
Atkins is pleased that two major pieces of her legislation made it into the bill, including the six-hour bail delay and the changes of a strangulation charge from a misdemeanor to a felony carrying a sentence of up to five years.
Another Atkins amendment that failed to make the final cut would have required charges of domestic violence to stay in a perpetrator's record even after his or her death.
Atkins says that now, if the perpetrator of a domestic violence dies, civil lawsuits against him can be dropped.
State Rep. Jim Arciero, a Westford Democrat, said the legislation is a "common-sense" approach to addressing domestic violence in the state.
"This form of violence affects all communities in our state," Arciero said.
He said the changes in the law, to insure that state judges have access to all available information about the accused in order to make a fully informed decision, are important as well.
"I am hopeful that this bill will continue to address the tragedy of domestic violence in our society," Arciero said.