Domestic Violence Law Needs Reform

Honolulu Star - Advertiser, June 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence Law Needs Reform


CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM A resident at a safe house in Makiki posed for a photo at a facility where people can seek refuge from domestic violence, sex assault or human trafficking.

There’s no disputing that children exposed to domestic violence suffer lasting negative effects, often with ramifications reaching well beyond their families to the much broader society.

In an effort to shield kids from such trauma and break cycles of family violence, Hawaii enacted a law in 2014 that makes physical abuse a family or household member in the presence of another family or household member under age 14 a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The impulse for a tougher penalty is laudable. But while House Bill 1993, signed into law as Act 117, looked good on paper, in practice it’s proving to create more problems than it solves. State lawmakers should rescind it and retool efforts aimed at thwarting domestic violence in the islands.

Previously, such a case of domestic abuse was a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. Although tailored to deter abuse, it appears that the reclassification simply moved the matter from Family Court to Circuit Court. A resulting spike in felony cases has caused Circuit Court congestion. And that, in turn, is leading to a less-than-impressive conviction record, defeating the intent of the tougher law.

According to a report released last week by Honolulu’s city auditor, the tally of cases handled by Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division jumped to an estimated 1,538 from 215 - a whopping 615 percent increase - over a three-year period ending last year. On the prosecutors’ side, the caseload assigned to each domestic violence attorney nearly doubled, increasing to 94 from 54.

Less than 14 percent of reclassified cases were accepted and charged as felonies. And many of those could not be prosecuted because victims and children were unwilling to testify. Also, overall, more than half of the new felony cases (53 percent) were reclassified or downgraded to misdemeanor cases by prosecutors. …

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