ANNAPOLIS — The House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would increase the penalties for committing a violent crime within sight or earshot of a child aged 2 to 16.
Those found guilty could receive an enhanced penalty of imprisonment for up to five years, in addition to any sentences given for the violent crime itself.
Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney, played clips of children calling 911 at last Tuesday’s hearing on the measure, House Bill 478.
“My dad — I saw blood on his jacket. I thought he was killing my mom with a knife,” said one little boy.
Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, who is sponsoring the bill, proposed two amendments: One, that the age of a child be raised to under 18, and two, that the enhanced penalty be served consecutive to any other sentences.
“An act of violence that is committed in the presence of a child is, to me, like pouring gasoline on a tiny flower and setting it on fire,” Simmons said.
Erin Curtis, a Calvert County woman who said she was beaten, stabbed and thrown down the stairs, told about her personal experience with domestic violence.
“My 9-year-old son called 911 and basically saved my life,” Curtis said.
She didn’t want to make her son testify about the abusive episode that led to her being in physical therapy for a year before she was able to return to work.
Instead, her husband negotiated a plea and could be released when her youngest son is 8, she said.
“With the extended sentence it would have given us the opportunity to heal, to move on and my son would have been old enough to make his own decisions about what kind of relationship he wants with his father,” Curtis said.
Debbie Feinstein, chief of the Family Violence Division of the Montgomery County State’s Attorneys Office, said the bill would help in cases where adult victims use their marital privilege to avoid testifying against their spouses.
“Having someone assert their marital privilege can often really be the end of the case, so I think it’s an important distinction,” Feinstein said.
State’s attorneys could compel reluctant victims to testify on behalf of children who witnessed abuse.
Ricardo A. Flores, the government relations director for the Office of the Public Defender, described his office’s opposition to the bill by comparing domestic violence to hurling tennis balls in Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.’s direction. If Vallario weren’t hit by the tennis balls, then he wouldn’t be affected by them.
“This bill is obviously well intended. It addresses a very serious issue, but it is extraordinary in how it’s drafted and how it departs from basic foundations of evidence regarding harm, tying harm to intent, and it is not just a sentencing enhancement,” Flores said.
Various witnesses testified about the negative effects on children when they witness domestic violence.
They are more likely to become abusers and abused themselves, and they may feel like the violence is their fault. Children who witness violence are more likely to enter the juvenile court system and later the adult criminal system.
Maryland laws do not address violent crimes witnessed by children, but at least 22 states address the issue, according to a 2009 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Similar bills have been introduced every legislative session for the past seven years. Last year, the bill passed in the House with amendments, but did not make it out of a Senate committee.
This year, the bill has been cross-filed as Senate Bill 861 by Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. It was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, but has been referred to the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where it is pending.