Violent offenders

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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna has been reflecting upon the murder of 31-year-old Laura Winterbottom, and what her death might teach us about violence in our community.

(HANNA) It’s been two months since Laura Winterbottom was beaten, raped and murdered – allegedly by someone she didn’t know. A suspect, Burlington resident Gerald Montgomery, is currently in police custody. But, like many women, I still don’t feel safe when I’m out alone.

It’s true that stranger killings are relatively rare. Most women are victimized by a husband, boyfriend or someone they know. But I don’t take comfort in this fact.

One of the things that disturb me most about this case is that, in addition to being convicted of a sex offense against an acquaintance, Montgomery had been arrested for domestic assault – but never prosecuted. This reminds me of one of the biggest fallacies about domestic abusers: that they’re only violent against their spouses.

While women do engage in violence and sexual misconduct, the vast majority of violent sexual offenders are men.

We often assume that there’s something about the relationship, not the abuser, that makes him violent. Emerging research on male offenders shows that this assumption is wrong. At least 20 percent of men arrested for domestic abuse are known as generally violent offenders. These offenders often evade prosecution because they’re able to intimidate their victims, or simply move from one to another.

Sometimes the system doesn’t take them seriously. If you just look at one incident against one victim, these offenders don’t seem so dangerous. But if you widen the lens to view the abuser’s whole history, you often see a pattern of ongoing abuse and violence directed at many different people.

And, in the same vein, interviews of convicted sex offenders show that a substantial portion of them admit to abusing a wife, girlfriend or acquaintance. The anonymous murderer, the acquaintance rapist, the abusive boyfriend, can be the same person. Often, the only thing that can prevent him from re-offending is incarceration because he’s otherwise incapable of controlling his rage.

The Governor has been promoting a bill which would provide for civil commitment for violent as well as sex offenders. Although I don’t support this bill, the Governor is on the right track to rethink how we deal with violent offenders.

I’d urge the Governor to take a different approach. We need increased funds for prosecutions and for pre-sentence investigations, especially in domestic violence and acquaintance rape cases so judges under- stand the violent histories many of these offenders have. And if we had longer sentences for violent and sexual offenders, we wouldn’t need to rely on civil commitments.

We all need to stop minimizing what we think of as crimes between people who know each other – because if just one person is victim- ized, we could all be at risk.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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