While several respondents cited improvements that could be made to existing laws, many felt that better enforcement of existing laws was a more important issue. They felt that the lack of adequate resources and coordination is not unique to domestic violence but is systemic and results from funding shortages.
One recent case in neighboring Baltimore County has drawn community attention to domestic violence. Judge Cahill in Baltimore County recently sentenced a man to 18 months of work release for murdering his wife. Court transcripts revealed that the judge sympathized with the defendant and alluded to the fact that he would have taken the same course of action himself. This instance disturbed many people and initiated a judicial review process by the Judicial Commission in Maryland. Not only is the Cahill case being evaluated, but the judicial review process has also come under public scrutiny. Many people use this example to illustrate the need for more training, education, and attitude change among the judiciary.
Many respondents discussed the importance of the protection order, particularly among battered women who prefer a civil rather than criminal remedy. They stated that women may prefer that the abuser not be arrested for a number of reasons, such as their own physical safety or the need for continued child support. However, in Maryland, a civil protection order can be issued only to persons who are currently married, or who have lived together for 90 days over the past year, or who are related by blood, or who have a child in common. Thus, many intimate partners who do not meet any of these criteria, are not eligible for a protection order in Baltimore, which may stipulate no contact, temporary child custody, and family maintenance.
Service of protection orders is another problem in Baltimore. Court hearings on the petition for a protection order are held within one week after it is filed. The police, who serve all orders, are supposed to make three attempts to serve the order within the week before the hearing. If the order is not served, the petition can only be renewed three subsequent times and then the application is dropped. Thus, if the person is not served within one month, the case leaves the system with no action taken. The Ad Hoc Committee on Protective Orders is investigating this issue and will make recommendations to the DVCC about how to improve service.
In Baltimore, the majority of domestic violence cases are prosecuted in District rather than Circuit Criminal Court. Cases move to Circuit Court if charges are increased to a felony or if a jury trial is requested by the defendant. Assault, the most common charge in a domestic violence case, is a common law crime in Baltimore. Because few domestic violence cases are tried as felonies, prosecution efforts have been concentrated in the District Court. However, in the future, a special team may be created to prosecute domestic violence cases in Circuit Court.
According to DVCC members, the laws concerning harassment and stalking are also problematic. The maximum sentence for harassment is only 90 days, compared to stalking convictions which carry a maximum sentence of several years. Stalking cases are extremely difficult to prosecute because the statute requires that the victim be in fear of death. In many cases, the victim may know the stalker and simply want to be left alone, but not fear death. These cases cannot be prosecuted for stalking under Maryland's law. Under the VAW grant, the DVCC has been working to fulfill a grant objective to improve training and information about stalking issues.
There are a couple of statewide organizations in Maryland that work on domestic violence issues. There is the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and the Maryland Alliance Against Domestic Violence. According to one respondent, the differences between these organizations are political and often divisive in the domestic violence community. The Family Violence Council, a statewide task force headed by the State Attorney General and the Lieutenant Governor, is another initiative that may improve the domestic violence response in the state.
Baltimore City is adjacent to Baltimore County; therefore, clients may move between the two communities for services. For example, since the House of Ruth is the only domestic violence shelter in Baltimore City, battered women sometimes seek shelter in the county when the House of Ruth is full. In 1991, the DVCC and the Baltimore County domestic violence coordinating committee signed an interjurisdictional agreement that set standards for criminal justice agencies and social service providers in the two jurisdictions. For example, the agreement stipulates that the police in both the city and the county will develop and share a list of the top 50 repeat domestic violence offenders in their jurisdiction. Mainly, the agreement serves as a good faith effort that the jurisdictions will work cooperatively when necessary, and, in practice, the two DVCC's do not often work jointly on projects. While the two committees are similar in overall structure, the county committee has a greater number of domestic violence service providers than the City does, but they do not have an active member from the judiciary.