TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–For 15 years, registered nurse June Berlinger suffered her own cracked ribs, burst ear drums and a constant barrage of verbal abuse from her husband, a professional who worked in state and local government.
Like most victims of domestic violence, Berlinger, coordinator of clinical programs for Florida State University, tolerated the abuse because she didn’t know what else to do.
A bill expected to be signed into law as early as next week by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would mean that if she successfully pressed charges after July 1, he would likely go to jail for at least five days.
“This is a huge issue,” Bush said.
Experts on domestic violence were uncertain whether it was the first such law in the country but said it was remarkable legislation that could be a model for other states.
“Why do victims stay? Fear is the biggest reason,” Berlinger, an active promoter of the law, said in an interview, adding that she’s making her past public to give others hope of a better life. “I’m not just a survivor–I’m a thriver.”
Bill Increases Penalties, Gives More Shelter Options, Increases Funding
Florida will have zero tolerance for domestic violence, Bush said last week, adding that he wanted to sign the Family Protection Act of 2001, an omnibus piece of legislation that increases penalties for batterers, gives survivors more shelter options and increases funding for public awareness.
The package includes a mandatory five-day stay in the county jail for those found guilty of or pleading no contest to domestic violence that intentionally causes bodily harm. The law would have incarcerated about 29,000 batterers last year.
Florida officials believe it may be ground-breaking legislation that other states will emulate.
The bill also requires batterers on probation or sentenced to halfway houses or in-home detention to complete an intervention program or undergo counseling. It pumps $4 million more into domestic violence shelters and it provides $500,000 for a statewide, domestic violence public awareness program.
Finally, the measure requires child protective investigators to be trained in using injunctions to remove violent perpetrators from homes. It also increases the penalty of a second or subsequent battery conviction to a third-degree felony. Currently, the third such act is no longer a misdemeanor, but a felony.
The jail stay and the new programs will be financed with a $201 surcharge on the fines levied on those convicted of assault, battery and other violent offenses.
Estimate: Up to 3.9 Million Women Abused Each Year
In 2000, 125,000 cases of domestic violence were reported nationwide; experts say many more go unreported. Of the 126,000 cases in 1999, 36,000 were committed by a spouse and 41,000 by a cohabitant. Another 10,000 were committed by a parent, 10,000 by a child and 9,000 by a sibling. Other family members committed 8,000 of the offenses while 12,000 were committed by persons outside the family.
Of the total offenses, about 20 percent were for aggravated assault and slightly less than 2 percent were for sex-related crimes that could result in physical injury.
Nationally, estimates range from 960,000 incidents of domestic violence to 3.9 million women who are physically abused by their husbands or live-in partners each year.
Nearly one-third of American women, 31 percent, report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to a 1998 Commonwealth Fund survey.
Florida State Sen. Anna Cowin, a Leesburg Republican, has been working on the bill for several years, with the primary obstacle being the allocation of funds needed. Having succeeded in getting new funds allocated, Cowin said she believes domestic violence is inextricably tied to all violent behaviors in society today.
“That’s one of the tragedies that unfold every day in our state,” Cowin said. “I think the awareness campaign is very important. People need to know that crime against families is serious crime.”
Florida’s domestic violence law is modeled after its hugely successful 10-20-life firearms statutes. Those laws give progressively longer mandatory minimum sentences to those who commit crimes while holding a firearm, shooting a firearm or hitting a victim.
But some experts think prevention, not incarceration, would be more successful in combating abuse at home.
A spokesman for the Family Violence Prevention Fund said the fund opposed the legislation because it focuses on the batterers without working on the underlying causes of family violence. “We just don’t think that’s the answer,” said Michael Runner from the fund.
Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist based in Tallahassee and covering Florida state government.
For more information, visit:
Text of Florida Senate Bill 1778 (search for no. 1778):
Family Violence Prevention Fund:
Domestic Violence Information Center:
U.S. Department of Justice, Violence Against Women Office: