By Rep. Penny Bernard-Schaber
Based on the stories that get the most attention from the news, it can sometimes seem as though the Legislature is either paralyzed by backbiting or ramming through divisive bills on party line votes. While that description is accurate far more often than I would like, the truth is that there are some issues where both sides of the aisle can come together and solve real problems. Reducing domestic violence is one of those issues, and I’m proud to say that my colleagues and I have taken a number of steps to make Wisconsin’s families safer.
Last month, Gov. Walker signed into law Senate Bill 160, authored by Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), which will help provide more information for law enforcement in domestic violence cases. State law requires mandatory arrest in instances of domestic violence; however, many cases of abuse had gone unreported, often because victims would recant under coercion from their abusers. This law requires officers to document their reasons for not making an arrest in a domestic disturbance call, so that repeat offenders will have still have a paper trail that future officers can take into account when they are called back to the same house. The law also requires officers responding to domestic abuse complaints to inform victims about the support services in their communities for victims of domestic violence to help them. The criminal justice system alone can’t stop domestic violence, and this bill recognizes that.
Another bill Gov. Walker signed into law was Assembly Bill 176, which made a number of changes to strengthen Wisconsin’s restraining-order statutes. Authored by Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), AB 176 adds stalking to the list of offenses that victims can use as a basis for obtaining a restraining order. Stalking can often escalate to violence, but before this law was enacted, it was not included in the definition of domestic abuse for the purposes of obtaining a restraining order. The bill also allows judges to issue restraining orders requiring abusers to stop all contact with their victims; previously, orders only banned harassing contact, which often led to abusers testing the boundaries of what law enforcement would consider “harassment” and making their victims less safe.
But the most significant recent change to our domestic violence laws is the SAFE Act. Based on a pilot program from Outagamie, Winnebago, Waushara and Sauk Counties, the Stopping Abuse Fatalities through Enforcement Act helps keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Prior to this law’s enactment, domestic abusers under restraining orders were required to surrender their firearms to the sheriff or other third parties. However, most sheriffs’ departments in the state had no process for verifying that domestic abusers had actually complied with this requirement, meaning that abusers were essentially on the honor system. This gap in enforcement left many victims vulnerable to being hurt again, often with tragic consequences.
I co-authored the SAFE Act during my first term and was able to pass it through the Assembly with a large, bipartisan majority. Unfortunately, that year the Senate adjourned before they could bring the SAFE Act up to a vote. That’s why I’m grateful for the help of my colleagues Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) for finally getting the SAFE Act through the Legislature and signed into law.
Bills like these that pass with large, bipartisan majorities don’t get the same headlines as the ones that spark all night floor debates, but they are no less significant to Wisconsin’s families. That is why I wanted to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues for all of their work protecting victims of domestic violence.