San Francisco Chronicle

Raise penalties for domestic violence

- Reach Emily Hoeven: emily.hoeven @sfchronicl­; Twitter: @emily_hoeven

Spurred by a recent spate of mass shootings, California lawmakers are gearing up to debate a host of bills that aim to reduce gun violence by strengthen­ing the state’s strongest-in-the-nation firearm laws.

But the supermajor­ity-Democratic Legislatur­e should also seriously consider a proposal, authored by Republican Assembly Member Joe Patterson of Rocklin (Placer County), that approaches the problem from a different, oftoverloo­ked angle: classifyin­g domestic violence as a “violent” crime, increasing penalties for the worst and most dangerous offenders.

You and I might define domestic violence as “violent” — it’s in the name, after all — but California penal code does not. (Other notable exceptions: human traffickin­g — which Patterson’s bill would also classify as violent — and rape of an unconsciou­s or incapacita­ted person.)

So what, you may ask, does domestic violence have to do with mass murder?

As it turns out, quite a bit: In more than 68% of U.S. mass shootings — events in which at least four people died, not including the perpetrato­r — from 2014 through 2019, the shooter either had a history of domestic violence or killed at least one partner or family member, according to 2021 research published in “Injury Epidemiolo­gy” . Domestic violence was cited as a possible motive for the Monterey Park gunman, who fatally shot 11 people on Lunar New Year’s Eve at a dance hall before killing himself.

Statistics that serious call for an equally strong response from the state.

The state Legislatur­e is understand­ably squeamish about increasing criminal penalties, given the state’s history of mass incarcerat­ion and its disproport­ionate impact on communitie­s of color. But, by failing to treat domestic violence as the violent crime that it is, California is failing not only victims — who sought assistance from law enforcemen­t nearly 165,000 times in 2021 — but also society at large by insufficie­ntly addressing one of the greatest predictors of mass shootings.

Because of how California’s penal code is written, people convicted of felony domestic violence are considered “nonviolent” offenders and are eligible for benefits that “violent” offenders are not. Under rule changes recently adopted by the California Department of Correction­s and Rehabilita­tion — using the power voters granted with the 2016 passage of Propositio­n 57 — nonviolent offenders can receive enough good conduct credits to slash their sentence by 50%, compared to 33% for violent offenders. Both groups can also earn additional credits by participat­ing in educationa­l and rehabilita­tive programs.

Certain nonviolent offenders are also eligible for a special parole review process that can result in an expedited release from prison. And unlike violent felonies, nonviolent felonies are not considered strikes under California’s three strikes law, limiting prosecutor­s’ ability to seek longer sentences for offenders convicted of future crimes.

If domestic violence were considered a violent crime, it would result in steeper consequenc­es for the worst offenders — those convicted of a felony as opposed to a misdemeano­r, which has a maximum sentence of one year in jail. This could help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, given that California often fails to enforce laws banning most domestic abusers from possessing firearms — permanentl­y for those who are criminally convicted and temporaril­y for those served restrainin­g orders.

Among the challenges, according to a 2021 report from the Little Hoover Commission, an independen­t state watchdog: The California Department of Justice’s database of so-called “armed and prohibited” people runs on complex, outdated technology and contains incomplete informatio­n. The report further notes that there aren’t enough law enforcemen­t officers at any level of government to remove guns from dangerous individual­s.

As of Jan. 1, 2022, the state Justice Department’s database contained nearly 25,000 people who owned or possessed guns despite being prohibited from doing so. And those are just the people and weapons the state knows about: Of the 1,428 guns the department’s Bureau of Firearms recovered in 2021, more than 40% were not listed in the database.

Some doubt that lengthier prison sentences are the best way to mitigate gun violence. Given that most domestic violence cases are handled in civil, not criminal, court, the state should focus on removing guns from people served domestic violence restrainin­g orders, said Julia Weber, a national expert on domestic violence and firearms policy.

Another concern for advocates: “Does a more intense carceral response really provide healing and behavior change?” asked Krista Colón, public policy director for the California Partnershi­p to End Domestic Violence. “That’s something that we have a healthy dose of skepticism about, that lengthier prison sentences are going to prevent these individual­s from committing future violence.”

But the issue of prison reform — which is also much needed — is separate from the fundamenta­l issue of how state law treats a crime that affects more than 1 in 3 women nationally and killed at least 87 California­ns in 2020, the vast majority of them women. As Greg Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Associatio­n, put it, domestic violence is “by its nature, by its very definition, a violent crime.”

It is difficult to understand how a state that describes itself as a fierce defender of women’s rights could argue otherwise.

One of California’s highest-profile Democrats, Attorney General Rob Bonta, told me before his re-election last year, “Domestic violence, human traffickin­g, rape of an unconsciou­s person — all of those should be discussed and potentiall­y changed. … If people are asked … ‘Is this a violent crime? Or is it not a violent crime?’ I think people will say, ‘It’s a violent crime.’ ”

It’s time the state penal code says so, too.

 ?? Nina Riggio/Special to The Chronicle 2021 ?? California Attorney General Rob Bonta says domestic violence should be considered a violent crime under state law.
Nina Riggio/Special to The Chronicle 2021 California Attorney General Rob Bonta says domestic violence should be considered a violent crime under state law.

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