Pa. bill to toughen domestic-violence penalties would include GPS monitoring

Posted: January 31, 2014

JENNIFER SERRANO knows how backward Pennsylvania's laws protecting domestic violence victims can be. She's been fighting off her abuser at home and in court for 10 years now.

Like the times she'd hand-delivered stay-away orders with a police escort - only to be attacked by her ex after the police officers drove away.

Or the other times her ex would stand outside her workplace and call 50 to 60 times to berate her on the phone. She'd call the cops, only to watch them shrug, saying he wasn't violating his restraining order because he wasn't physically abusing her.

In 2007, she grew so desperate to escape the torment that when she saw a "How can we help you?" poster on the window of then state Rep. Tony Payton Jr.'s Northeast Philadelphia district office, she went inside.

That cry for help evolved into action that now could spur statewide change. Serrano's struggles inspired Philadelphia state Rep. Brendan Boyle to introduce legislation last Thursday to strengthen domestic-abuse laws in a state that tallied 141 domestic-violence deaths in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"Domestic violence is a quiet crisis in our society," said Boyle, who worked with Payton to get Serrano help. "Literally every day in Pennsylvania, a woman is seriously hurt, possibly even killed, as a result of domestic violence. The fact that this doesn't get more attention, when it's such a serious problem, is something I'm trying to change."

Boyle will outline the measures in his bills at a news conference in Norristown today.

Some measures seem like common sense. For example, one bill would require local and state police to train at least four hours annually in domestic violence. Pennsylvania now requires no such training; only seven other states - including New Jersey - do, Boyle said.

Another measure would allow courts to deliver protection-from-abuse orders by certified mail (or publish them in a newspaper if the abuser's address is unknown), rather than having victims hand-deliver them and risk confrontation with their abusers.

But one proposal that could be the most effective in curbing domestic violence also promises to be the most controversial.

Boyle aims to require domestic abusers with a history of violating stay-away orders to wear GPS trackers to monitor their whereabouts. Many states already use such monitoring to track sex offenders.

The idea is that offenders are less likely to commit another crime if they know they are being tracked.

Such monitoring also allows law-enforcers to keep tabs on potentially dangerous domestic abusers without jailing them at taxpayer expense, Boyle said. Under Boyle's bill, abusers would have to pay for their GPS trackers, estimated to be about $10 a day (compared to taxpayers' daily per-inmate cost of $114 in city jails and $98 in state prisons).

In Philadelphia alone, judges issued 6,256 protection orders last year, Boyle said. It's unclear how often those orders were violated.

Still, such monitoring has drawn criticism from civil libertarians, who say it's unfair to assume that abusers will reoffend. They describe the GPS trackers as government-sanctioned spying that invades wearers' privacy.

But lawmakers in at least 27 other states have approved such monitoring or introduced legislation to allow it, according to the Cynthia L. Bischof Memorial Foundation, an Illinois-based group that has crusaded for tracking nationally since Bischof's stalker ex-boyfriend shot her to death in 2008.

A study last year of California's high-risk sex-offender parolees found that those with GPS trackers had significantly lower recidivism rates than those under traditional supervision, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Serrano, for one, would welcome tougher domestic-violence laws - and has little patience for any abusers who would complain about privacy invasion.

"If you are physically abusing a woman, then you're basically asking to be treated as a criminal, because you're acting like a criminal," said Serrano, 27, a mother of three who still has a protection order against the ex-boyfriend who began to abuse her in 2004.


On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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