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    Domestic violence law stiffens penalties

    Starting July 1, jail time will accompany convictions that involve bodily harm.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida will be getting much more serious about dealing with domestic violence under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Beginning July 1, those convicted of domestic violence will serve a minimum-mandatory five days in jail when convicted of causing bodily harm. They will be guilty of a felony if convicted of a second offense. "Making Florida a safer and healthier place for our families to live is a priority," Bush said. "Domestic violence is one of the biggest challenges facing the people of our state."

    Patricia Smith, a Tallahassee woman who survived 17 years of domestic violence, stood at Bush's side as he signed the bill.

    Tiffany Carr, director of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a state group that helps operate 38 Florida domestic abuse shelters, praised Bush for making a commitment to end domestic violence and for putting money in his budget that will go directly to shelters "for the first time in history."

    Each domestic violence offender will be forced to pay a $201 surcharge on any court-imposed fine. Part of the money will defray the costs of mandatory jail sentences, and $85 will be used to fund shelters in the area where the abuse occurred.

    Officials estimate the surcharge will add about $4-million a year to help shelters house and feed abuse victims.

    In addition, the state will provide about $500,000 to publicize the tougher penalties.

    Those convicted also will have to complete an abuser's intervention program to serve on probation or community control. More training will be required for child protection workers so they can help get abusive parents out of the home.

    The Family Protection Act was Bush's top criminal justice priority this year and passed in the wake of reports that domestic violence crimes inched down by only 1 percent last year while other forms of serious crime dipped 8.1 percent in 2000.

    State Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, sponsor of the bill in the House and a prosecutor, said he thinks the public awareness campaign will help prosecutors and law enforcement officers.

    State Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said the money for shelters will be of great assistance for those who struggle to feed, clothe and house women and children who seek help.

    Domestic violence is a problem for all Floridians, Cowin noted.

    "It affects the children who go to school with our children," she said. "And it is difficult to raise awareness of the problem."

    Not everyone likes the new bill.

    Pasco-Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the law is likely to clog the courts even more because few defendants will plead guilty knowing they will face a mandatory five-day jail sentence.

    - Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

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