DA Vance Testimony on VAWA Reauthorization Before the City Council

February 27, 2012

Good afternoon Chairwoman Ferreras and members of the Committee on Women’s Issues.  I am New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss Resolution 1064-2011, Regarding The Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 

The Violence Against Women Act was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It was reauthorized in both 2000 and 2005. VAWA was designed to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  At the same time, it was designed to increase the availability of services for victims. VAWA is rooted in the belief that a coordinated response to these crimes – meaning that law enforcement, service providers, non-governmental organizations, and community partners all working in tandem – is essential if we are going to achieve our shared goal of reducing violence against women. 

VAWA was a long overdue piece of legislation.  The Office on Violence Against Women, which became a permanent part of the Department of Justice in 2002 with the mission of implementing VAWA and subsequent legislation, was then, and remains today, a vital part of the mission of eradicating violence against women.  Indeed, since 1994, the Office on Violence Against Women has awarded more than $3 billion in grant funds to state, tribal, and local governments, non-profit victim services providers, and universities.   This money has been critical to both violence prevention and recovery efforts in communities across the state, including New York County.

It will not surprise you to hear that in a city as densely populated and diverse as New York, domestic violence continues to plague people at all points on the socioeconomic spectrum. The NYPD received upwards of 250,000 domestic violence complaints last year – that averages out to nearly 700 domestic violence incidents reported to the NYPD every single day.  The NYPD made 67,761 domestic violence related home visits in 2010.  The stark reality is that every single domestic violence call is a potential homicide.  Since January 2010, there have been 23 domestic violence homicides in Manhattan. 

Yet, these staggeringly high numbers merely represent the incidents that have been reported to authorities.  Domestic violence offenses are consistently some of the most underreported crimes.  According to a National Violence Against Women Survey, only one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of all stalking incidents committed against women by intimate partners were reported to the police.  As these offenders evade prosecution, and the attendant criminal repercussion of their actions, evidence shows that they often escalate their behavior.  In fact, 66% of domestic violence victims who have been killed had prior incidents of abuse that were never reported to the police.  
The criminal justice system can, and I believe has a duty to, reduce these numbers and devastating outcomes. We have a responsibility to show that domestic violence reports will be dealt with seriously; to prevent the escalation of this violence; and to help victims escape the violence and return to a place of safety.  And ultimately, we have a responsibility to work with our partners to reduce the actual incidence of violence against women.

Let me give you one example of how VAWA funding has helped us to move this mission forward in Manhattan.  With $900,000 of VAWA funds, the Collaborative of Domestic Violence Services in Upper Manhattan (the Collaborative) was born.  The Collaborative is a partnership of community-based health, social, legal services and law enforcement agencies dedicated to providing culturally competent supportive services to victims of domestic violence through the delivery of coordinated interdisciplinary intervention strategies.  The Collaborative model was designed to address the unmet service needs of African, African-American, and Latino women living in Northern Manhattan who are victims of domestic violence.  The Collaborative provides a single point of entry into the system so that victims only need to contact one member of the Collaborative in order to be connected with the full spectrum of services offered by Collaborative members.  The victim need not navigate a complicated criminal, civil, and social service system, since the Collaborative acts as a coordinated umbrella organization. 

Through the Collaborative, we have been able to establish relationships, enhance NYPD technologies and protocols for interacting with victims, and create and implement numerous trainings.  We have developed the expertise to bring trainings into the community – which are attended by upwards of 150 people at a single event – that cover issues such as stalking and sexual assault.  Absent this funding, the Collaborative may never have developed, and almost certainly could not have achieved such far-reaching success.

VAWA funding helped cover a portion of assistant district attorneys’ salaries as well as staff at many of the partner agencies.  Using an additional grant, the Collaborative was able to extend its reach to include the Harlem Independent Living Center, an organization providing services to the hearing impaired.  This recent expansion truly reaches an underserved community.

While the Collaboration did not receive money last year, my office benefited from VAWA funding that supports the activities of our Domestic Violence and Sex Crimes Units, with the goal of decreasing the incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault in Manhattan. The Units employ three strategies to achieve this goal: enhanced prosecution, community collaboration and training, and service to victims of these crimes.
Clearly, the funds awarded to my office through the Office on Violence Against Women have afforded us the opportunity to create forward-thinking programs that aim to reduce the incidence of violence against women and, where such violence has occurred, to provide comprehensive wraparound services to some of the most vulnerable victims in our society.  Reauthorization of VAWA and continued funding for proven strategies is critical to our efforts.

At the same time, we simply cannot wait for the federal government to take action.  Working together, we have found – and will continue to find – ways to pool our limited resources and use new ideas to reduce violence against women and to serve crime victims.

Take, for instance, a simple legislative proposal.  Under current New York State Law, there is no penalty for repeat domestic violence offenders.  Unless there is serious physical injury or physical injury caused by a weapon, most domestic violence crimes qualify merely as misdemeanors.
With only this misdemeanor charge at their disposal, prosecutors across the state see domestic violence abusers repeatedly cycle through the system, serving little or no jail time.  Put differently, there is little disincentive for them to do it again because the penalties are so low, even for repeat offenders.  But, the opposite is true for the victim. The impact on the victims of repeated violence is severe and unconscionable.  According to the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, nearly 40% of battered women are victimized again within 6 months.  From 2007 to 2011, in New York County alone, 685 individuals were convicted of two or more domestic violence offenses. 

When a victim is repeatedly abused, but the consequences to the offender are the same every time, it sends a conflicting message about the importance of the victim and the gravity of the crime. Domestic violence is a matter of life and death – literally; evidence has shown time and time again that domestic violence can and does turn deadly.

That is why I have been a strong proponent of legislation that would create an E felony for repeatedly engaging in domestic violence.  Last year, this legislation passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate.  The drafting of and support for this bill has truly been a bipartisan effort, and the reasons for this are clear. This bill is simple and straightforward.  It enumerates “qualifying” domestic violence offenses, such as Aggravated Harassment and Strangulation, based upon the most common domestic violence convictions that my office saw last year.  If an offender is convicted of two or more qualifying offenses against a member of the same family or household within the immediately preceding five years, the offender can be charged with an E felony.

This felony charge for repeat offenders will do several things to break the cycle of abuse.  First, it sends a message to abusers and victims that the criminal justice system does not tolerate recurring acts of domestic violence.  Second, families would be better protected from continued violence, because a felony order of protection lasts almost twice as long as one from a misdemeanor case. Under this felony charge, perpetrators of domestic violence would at a minimum be eligible for probation supervision for five years. In more serious cases, judges could incarcerate batterers in state prison.  Finally, when incarceration is necessary and appropriate, these felony offenders would have much better access to re-entry and rehabilitative programs.  Judges would also have the discretion to require offenders to participate in proven treatment programs. 
In other words, creating an E felony for Aggravated Domestic Violence isn’t simply about jail time; it is a concerted effort to break the cycle of domestic violence while providing families with the safety that they deserve.

I caution that the fight against domestic violence does not, and cannot, end with this legislation.  The relationship between the victim and abuser in domestic violence is often complicated, with victims who may be financially dependent upon their abusers, or after years of abuse blame themselves for the violence.  This cycle of abuse and control makes victims particularly vulnerable to intimidation and threats aimed at preventing them from pursuing the prosecution of their abuser. Even in cases where the victim notifies law enforcement and an arrest is made, we know from long experience that it is extremely difficult to bring a case through to a disposition. Of the 26,280 domestic violence crimes that were arraigned citywide in 2010, fewer than 10,000 resulted in a conviction.

To address these complexities, my office, along with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the borough president is working to bring a Family Justice Center to Manhattan.  This Center is designed to bring under one roof services for those escaping domestic violence.   Specifically, the Family Justice Center will focus on improving three types of services for domestic violence victims.  The first is crisis intervention:  The Center will offer victims and their children safety and emergency care at the time of a violent incident.  It will also provide long and short-term individual and group counseling that is linguistically, culturally, and age appropriate.  Second, it will provide legal assistance: The Center will offer legal counseling, in English and Spanish, as well as support the representation of clients in Family and Supreme Court in matters concerning orders of protection, support, paternity, custody/visitation, and matrimonial proceedings.  Third, the Center will provide educational outreach.  Employees will conduct on and off-site pro se and legal clinics on matrimonial and family court proceedings, immigration issues, and safety planning. The Family Justice Center’s client-centered approach will guide victims and enable them to determine their own path of action for improving their well-being.

My office is also dedicated to ensuring the best practices when prosecuting crimes of domestic violence.  That is why in 2010 I formed the Special Victims Bureau, to focus on domestic violence, sex crimes, child abuse, and elder abuse.  The cases that fall under the purview of the Special Victims Bureau are highly sensitive and involve some of our most vulnerable victims.  The consolidation of our resources in one bureau ensures that attorneys who have experience with the sensitive nature of these prosecutions are readily available to bring offenders to justice and to support these victims, whose lives are often upended due to the nature of these types of crimes.  The Special Victims Bureau has greatly increased the ability to share information, coordinate training, access investigative resources, and match victims with the appropriate counseling and social services. 

If one thing becomes clear during the hearings today, it is that violence against women is a complex, far-reaching epidemic.  There is no one solution or simple fix.  On the contrary, preventing violence against women and holding those who harm women accountable for their actions can only be achieved when law enforcement, service providers, community leaders, and lawmakers work together as a united front.  With strong leadership at the federal, state, and local levels, coupled with realistic funding, we can make huge strides in reducing violence against women.  The Violence Against Women Act is only one piece of that puzzle, but it is a critical element of our ongoing efforts and therefore the Violence Against Women Act must be reauthorized.