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August 11, 2015

Christie okays new law that sends domestic abusers to jail

Ray Rice domestic violence video inspires tougher New Jersey law

First-time domestic violence offenders will more likely go to jail instead of being able to enter a diversionary program thanks a new law approved by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Monday.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Glocester, introduced the bill about two and a half months after a video surfaced of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiance in an Atlantic City elevator.

“Domestic violence is a very serious crime that can leave its victims scarred physically and emotionally,” said Sweeney in a statement. “The laws need to hold abusers accountable and protect the victims.”

The Rice video sent shockwaves around the country and initiated a national conversation over how domestic violence should be handled. The NFL’s initial two-game suspension of Rice, as well as the decision by a local prosecutor to allow him to enter a diversionary program, called the Pre-Trial Intervention Program or PTI, was widely questioned.

PTI is a probation-like program for first-time offenders where counseling and other obligations must be completed in order for prosecutors to drop the charges. The program states that its goal is rehabilitation.

When Rice was allowed to enter PTI in part because he had no prior record, the prosecutor in Atlantic County denied Rice was given special treatment adding that the football star was admitted into the program based on the state's guidelines.

Now, those rules have changed. The new law means that for domestic violence incidents where the offender attempted to or caused significant bodily injury, there would be a presumption of jail time - potentially in the range of three to five years, according to a description of the bill. Previously, there was a general presumption of non-imprisonment for some first-time domestic violence crimes.

It will also be harder for domestic violence offenders to get into a program like PTI under the new law. For offenders who committed acts of violence or threatened violence or committed their criminal act while under a domestic violence restraining order, there would be a new presumption against admission into the diversionary program.

The definition of domestic violence would also be expanded to include criminal coercion. Criminal coercion would include threats like “if you leave me, I’m going to kill you,” according to the bill’s sponsors.

In addition, defendants previously wouldn’t have to plead guilty in order to enter PTI - under the new law in many cases they would have to do so. If the program is successfully completed the guilty plea would be dropped.

A non-partisan fiscal estimate of the law's cost found there was not a way for the state to predict how many more people the new legislation would send to jail.

“Domestic violence has been a hidden crime that too often allowed abusers to avoid responsibility and punishment,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said in a statement. “The current law allows too many offenders to automatically avoid jail time.”

“Prosecutors need stronger laws to work with and these changes will give it to them.”