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Lawmakers fail to agree on domestic violence measure

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Katherine “Kat” Aikau, above, participated in an April rally for a domestic violence bill that passed the state Senate but died in the House.

A domestic violence bill that advocates said would have improved a victim-traumatizing judicial system was passed unanimously by the state Senate but died in the House this year.

Katherine “Kat” Aikau, who has experience dealing with the system as a victim, gave legislators a failing grade for not passing the measure.

“How could they not try to make the system more efficient and more effective?” said Aikau, who participated in an April rally urging passage of the bill. “It’s so broken. Shame on them.”

Senate Bill 2343 would have made multiple changes to Hawaii law, including creating a petty misdemeanor category for abuse of a family or household member and allowing for deferred pleas for misdemeanor domestic abuse.

It was supported by a diverse group ranging from prosecutors and police to victims and advocates.

The changes would have helped ease the court congestion problem that afflicts domestic abuse cases, supporters said.

A defendant prosecuted for a petty misdemeanor would not be entitled to a jury trial, which many alleged abusers now demand because prosecutors have such a poor track record when trying misdemeanor abuse cases before a jury. The heavy demand for such trials contributes to congestion.

But if defendants only could have bench trials in petty misdemeanor cases, they might be reluctant to chance a trial, and more cases would be settled prior to holding one, proponents say. Family Court judges regularly get training in the dynamics of domestic abuse and, the thinking goes, would be more adept than jurors at recognizing abuse — even if the victim had no physical injuries or recanted what she told police, common hurdles in such cases.

Allowing deferred pleas likewise would help unclog the court docket, the bill’s proponents said, because an abuser likely would be more inclined to reach a plea deal, given the chance to wipe the offense from his record. A deferral means the defendant has the opportunity to prevent a conviction from going on his rec­ord if he stays out of trouble with the law for a specified time, often a year.

But state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said the Senate bill sent to the House “was so beyond being able to be fixed” that legislators decided to work on the measure during the interim and consider another version next year.

Luke cited constitutional concerns by the Attorney General’s Office and caseload concerns by the Judiciary, which said the proposed changes could add nearly 1,000 additional cases to the Family Court docket and require a “sizable infusion” of additional resources.

“The last thing we want to do is add more cases to Family Court,” she said.

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