Danger at home

June 10, 1993

There's a lot of talk about the danger of street crime i Baltimore. But for many women, unsafe streets are less threatening than the danger they face in their own homes from abusive husbands or boyfriends. Equally frightening is the fact that few crimes that are classified as "domestic violence" ever get pursued and punished.

Last month, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee issued a report detailing the extent of the problem in the city, a problem that extends far beyond unruly or abusive men bent on victimizing women. The statistics in the report aren't perfect, but they are comprehensive enough to portray a major failure of the entire criminal justice system, from the police officer who responds to initial complaints through the judge who presides over criminal cases that result from domestic violence. (This report reflects poorly on the city, but no one should assume these problems stop at the county line.)

One statistic illustrates the problem: In Baltimore City, the conviction rate for the State's Attorney's Domestic Violence Unit is 30 percent. For most criminal units, that percentage would be considered a disgrace. But it's tolerated for domestic violence cases, which are considered difficult to prosecute. In San Diego, however, violence is not overlooked just because it occurs in a home or between family members. There, the conviction rate for these crimes is 88 percent.

The State's Attorney's office recently added another prosecutor for domestic violence cases -- a commendable move. But clearly that alone will not be enough to change attitudes that pervade the police and the courts -- attitudes that say, in actions if not in words, that beating a woman you're married to or living with is not as serious a crime as assaulting a woman you've never met. Similar problems are evident throughout the system, from police officers who fail even to file a written report of a complaint of domestic violence to judges (or even would-be judges) whose attitudes toward women are callous, to say the least.

In 1993, city police will get almost 80,000 complaints of domestic violence. In the vast majority of cases, nothing will ever happen to a violent abuser, even if there is visible evidence of an injury caused by the violence. By doing nothing, the city is sending a message, not just to the abusers but also to the children who witness these battles -- a message that says that violence will go unpunished, as long as it stays in the home. But crimes are crimes, wherever they occur. Every person has a right to life and safety -- especially at home.

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