AUSTIN — Texas Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) hopes to combat domestic violence by repeat offenders in Texas in two bills filed this legislative session.
House Bills 524 and 525 would help inform the community of domestic violence offenses while increasing punishments given to the offenders. Villalba filed the two bills last year on Dec. 7, and Texas’ 2017 legislative session began Jan. 10.
Ben Utley, legislative director at the Texas House of Representatives, said the bills have not yet been introduced but that they are both a top priority.
“Domestic violence is a growing epidemic with tragic consequences,” Villalba told FOX 7 in Austin. “We need to send a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated and that repeat offenses will be met with the harshest penalties available under the law.”
HB 524 would make a third domestic violence conviction a second-degree felony while altering the offender’s eligibility for parole and mandatory supervision. HB 525 would require an offender on his or her third conviction to register in a public database.
Sandi Murphy, a legal and policy advisor for the Battered Women’s Justice Project and advisor to Big Mountain Data, advised caution in supporting a database or registry of this nature.
“Too often, victims of DV end up arrested and convicted (rightly and wrongly),” she said. “Such registries would create devastating effects on their efforts to find work and housing and keep custody of the children.”
The central database proposed in the bill would contain information about the offenders committing violent acts against children or other family members and would also include convictions of dating violence.
“Such registries (much like the firearms bans) create obstacles for prosecutors to obtain plea agreements to charges that actually reflect their DV status, with offenders seeking to plead to non-domestic charges to avoid the registry,” Murphy said.
Villalba has shown similar concerns. In an interview with NBC in Dallas-Fort Worth, he discussed the possibility of a database “outing” potential victims.
“The question is, do we really want to out victims?” he said. “That’s a concern. In this situation, we will prioritize life over that concern.”
Information that wouldn’t be publicly available in the database includes the offender’s social security, driver’s license and telephone numbers, along with any information that could identify the victim. The new bills come after a year that saw another unprecedented domestic violence victory in several states, including Texas.
Last year marked the first time the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women awarded funds based on requirements of the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act. If a state meets the requirements of the act, it would be eligible to receive additional funds in its Stop Violence Against Women and Sexual Assault Services Program. Texas was one of 12 states to qualify for the funding.
Domestic violence hotlines in Texas answered 185,373 calls in 2014. More than 100 Texan women were killed by their partners in 2012, which is about 10 percent higher than the national total.