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Pa. Senate advances bill to give judges more tools in domestic-violence cases

A bill sent to Gov. Wolf by the Pa. Senate would allow judges to use risk-assessment tools to aid them in setting bail in domestic violence cases.

Tierne Ewing of Washington County, pictured above, was killed by her husband in 2016. The Pa. Senate March 21 sent a bill to Gov. Wolf giving judges more tools to make bail decisions in domestic violence cases.
Tierne Ewing of Washington County, pictured above, was killed by her husband in 2016. The Pa. Senate March 21 sent a bill to Gov. Wolf giving judges more tools to make bail decisions in domestic violence cases.Read morePennDot

HARRISBURG — A bill that is likely to become law could open the door for more judges to use risk-assessment tools — screenings aimed at determining whether someone presents a danger to others — when they set bail in domestic-violence cases.

The bill, which Gov. Wolf has indicated he will sign, was introduced by State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R.,Washington) and passed the House and Senate without opposition. It was part of a larger package of bills aimed at improving protections for domestic-violence victims or closing loopholes surrounding protection-from-abuse orders. The Senate passed the bills unanimously Wednesday.

If it becomes law as expected, the legislation introduced by Bartolotta will be named for Tierne Ewing, a Washington County woman killed by her husband in an apparent murder-suicide in 2016.

Tierne and Kevin Ewing had a history of domestic abuse, according to officials, family, and neighbors. A couple of months before their deaths, Kevin Ewing was charged with kidnapping Tierne Ewing, branding her with a metal rod, binding her, and locking her in a closet, among other crimes. He was on house arrest when he cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet, took his wife at gunpoint, then killed her and himself as police arrived.

Bartolotta's bill would change Pennsylvania law to empower each county's president judge to clear magisterial district judges, Philadelphia municipal judges, and Common Pleas judges to use pretrial risk assessments in conjunction with other tools to determine if the defendant in a domestic-violence case presents a danger to others. It's unclear whether the steps outlined in the bill could have prevented Tierne Ewing's death.

Some have reservations about the bill, noting that risk-assessment tools can have disproportionate and punitive effects on minorities and the poor. While it is "extraordinarily important" to focus on the victim's needs, it's also important to consider the accused, said Hannah Sassaman, policy director of the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project, which has done work evaluating risk-assessment tools.

"Often people accused of domestic violence are also breadwinners for families, and when we let a computer guide us more than the needs of those survivors of harm or violence, we are ignoring their voices rather than centering them," Sassaman said.  "Those survivors, as well as people accused of harm and violence, deserve individual attention from the justice system."

Bartolotta's bill also calls for the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to develop a model risk-assessment tool and to test assessments to ensure they are free from racial or economic bias.

Also passing the state Senate on Wednesday and heading to the House for consideration were six other bills aimed at improving protections for domestic-violence victims. One bill would ensure that law enforcement officers are available while a protection-from-abuse order is being served (policies vary throughout the state), and another would place further restrictions on whom defendants can transfer guns to after a court orders them to turn over weapons. A third bill would make it easier for courts to extend PFAs while the defendant is incarcerated, and a fourth would make it easier for domestic-violence victims who live in public housing to request a transfer. Another bill would make it easier for some domestic-violence victims to remove themselves from a phone plan they share with an alleged abuser, and another would amend the state constitution to include a victims' "Bill of Rights."

The state House returns to session next month.

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