By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press
New Mississippi laws will more harshly punish batterers and stalkers for their actions — changes sought by prosecutors and advocates for victims.
Lawmakers passed two bills updating domestic violence laws, and a third that rewrote the anti-stalking law. All the laws took effect July 1.
Mississippi ranks fifth highest in the nation in domestic violence killings. For every 100,000 Mississippi women, two die each year from violence at home.
Despite a common misconception, domestic violence does not have to be a man hurting a woman. Domestic violence can be a man hurting a woman, a woman hurting a man, a man hurting a man, or a woman hurting a woman, as long as it is a domestic crime. In Mississippi, any domestic violence can end in jail time.
Senate Bill 2923 was sponsored by Democratic Sens. David Blount and Alice Harden, both of Jackson. It made largely technical changes, requested by prosecutors, that would be more effective in punishing people who commit crimes of domestic violence.
Under the new law, people who strangle their victims will face felony charges instead of misdemeanor.
“We were told it was a common crime and an indication of a potential for greater violence,” Blount said.
Attorney General Jim Hood said his domestic violence division found other states have similar laws.
“Strangulation is a method by which the abuser seeks to control his or her victim,” Hood said. “It is really dangerous because if you don’t intervene with those kind of people then you’re going to have a murder on your hands.”
Hood said statistics show that children who see their father abuse their mother in some manner, including choking, are likely to do the same thing later in life.
“Abuse is learned behavior and that’s why we spend a lot of time in schools taking about this issue,” he said.
Under the old law, when a victim was choked to unconsciousness, the attacker could only be charged with simple or domestic assault, both of which are misdemeanors.
Blount said the new law also expands the definition of threats to children.
“Our experience in talking with victims’ rights advocates who work on this issue and prosecutors tells us that threats to children also are an indication of the potential for greater violence,” Blount said. “They told us this is something that happens in the real world and we didn’t have laws in place to address it.”
Senate Bill 2344, sponsored by Blount and Democratic Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez, protects victims of domestic violence from discrimination by health insurance companies.
“This deals with situations in other states where past victims of domestic violence may be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition,” Blount said.
He said Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney helped draft the bill to prohibit that practice.
The anti-stalking law is House Bill 1309, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Brandon Jones of Pascagoula and Kimberly Campbell Buck of Jackson, made aggravated stalking a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $3,000 fine. Punishment for aggravated stalking for someone with a previous record as a sex offender would be up to six years and a $4,000 fine.
Hood said under the old law, a successful prosecution was “contingent upon being able to prove that the stalker intended to place his or her victim, not just in fear, but in fear of death or great bodily injury.”
Hood said that was difficult to prove.
Under the new law, stalking would include behavior that would cause a “reasonable person to fear for his or her own safety, to fear for the safety of another person, or to fear damage or destruction of his or her property.”