Issaquah may adopt new domestic violence law
June 4, 2013
By Peter Clark
Committing act in front of children would bring 30 days in jail
A new domestic violence law might soon come before the council.
During the goal-setting retreat last month, in which council members presented items to prioritize in the coming year, Councilman Josh Schaer brought attention to a 2006 law passed by the city of Federal Way. It calls for a mandatory 30-day sentence to convicted offenders of a domestic violence crime in the presence of a child.
Schaer said he wanted to investigate the possibility of passing such a law in Issaquah.
“We have had incidents of domestic violence that have been fairly high profile,” Schaer said at the retreat, referring to the Jan. 29 arrest of Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill in Hill’s Talus home. “We want to send a message to our citizens that we care about this issue.”
Although the goals discussed at the meeting were meant to set an agenda for the 2014 year, the council members agreed that the issue should be addressed sooner rather than later. Council President Fred Butler said that the administration should draft a bill in the coming months to merit council deliberation.
A net positive success
Working as a defense attorney for a number of years gave Schaer an insight into the system into which offenders of domestic violence enter. In a private interview, he explained why he wanted to introduce the measure to the rest of the council.
“I started thinking about what we could do as an area,” he said. “Our state’s domestic violence laws could be tougher. People make mistakes, but when you assault someone there’s an intent element behind it.”
He explained how in the state of Washington, cities cannot make ordinances tougher than state law. The Federal Way law worked around that limitation by passing a parallel ordinance to work with the state statutes and specifically target those convicted offenders who committed domestic violence in the presence of a child.
“This law has obviously been tested,” Schaer said. “This mechanism is where the city could take a stronger stance. It doesn’t make a penalty harsher, but creates a separate code.”
In his experience, he saw incidents where offenders would flee the scene after an attack and only later get picked up on a warrant or turn themselves in. Once in front of a judge, offenders would get released by putting up bail or to await trial. Schaer said he wanted a tougher penalty for those offenders in domestic violence incidents.
He said that the presence of a child caused him even more concern, especially having become a father himself in the past several years. He said that numerous studies pointed to the developmental effects that witnessing domestic violence could bring to a growing mind.
“Thankfully, we have a low crime rate in Issaquah. This would give prosecutors another tool to add more options to the cases,” Schaer said. “It would strengthen our resolve as a city, and sends a message to the community that we care about children and about our citizens.”
He said that he believes the usage of jail time to be rehabilitative, but also punitive in its value. Schaer said the city takes leadership on many issues and that a similar law to the one in Federal Way could set Issaquah apart on the Eastside.
“The impact this has on children is so significant, and you have to pay for that impact,” he said. “If it stops one person from committing domestic violence, then there is a net positive success to it.”
Police offer support without certainty of affect
Police Chief Paul Ayers sees the initial benefit in passing a more rigorous domestic violence law in the city, but said he did not have a clear idea of how much it would affect current crime.
“We don’t have an accurate idea of how many cases this could affect,” Ayers said. “I suspect it’s going to be fairly low.”
According to Issaquah Police Department records, there were 107 domestic violence related incidents reported in 2012. They qualify incidents of domestic violence as an assault, theft or arson with a domestic relationship between the victim and the offender.
“While we have a large number of domestic calls, all of them that we receive do not lead to an arrest,” he said. As for the presence of children at incidents, he said the department did not know how many were. “It don’t know if it’s an issue or not.”
Still, he said he found value in the proposition of a 30-day mandatory jail sentence for convicted domestic violence offenders.
“This would give us another tool,” Ayers said. “It’s pretty much an unknown, but if it’s occurring, then it would be beneficial.”
A big, dramatic issue
The domestic violence organization LifeWire, formerly the Eastside Domestic Violence Program, had mixed reactions to the possibility of Issaquah investigating such a law. Interim Executive Director Sarah Steininger said that the issue is extremely complex and the simplified nature of the law could be detrimental.
“The majority of our survivors do have children,” Steininger said of the people who make use of LifeWire’s help line, concealing services and support groups. “A law like this is really complicated. The criminal justice system views domestic violence in a very black-and-white way. It’s incapable of understanding the ongoing pattern of coercive control.”
She said that the organization did not promote the passage of the Federal Way law.
“We were not super supportive at the time they were passing that law,” she said. “The potential negative impact for survivors was so great that we were very concerned.”
In particular, she said that there were possible ramifications of mandatory jail time that could affect families. Decisions made by law enforcement might not take into account the nature of relationships based on control.
“The problem is not when the right person is arrested, but when the wrong one is,” Steininger said. “It actually gives more power to the person perpetuating that relationship.”
Additionally, she voiced concerns of the damage it could cause to a family in terms of sustainability. Those imprisoned would be much more likely to lose jobs and the ability to support themselves or the family.
According to LifeWire’s statistics, 39 survivors of domestic violence from Issaquah, many with children, received assistance from the organization in 2012. Steininger said that the law did recognize the risk to children appropriately, though did not propose a complete solution.
“It is true that witnessing domestic violence is very damaging to children,” she said. “Unfortunately, jail time is not going to be the thing that keeps children from experiencing that trauma. That issue is so much bigger and dramatic than that.”
Schaer said that the next step would be for the administration to draft legislation and send it to the Services & Safety Committee in the next couple of months.