Domestic Violence & The Failures of The Justice System

Over the past few weeks, the issue of domestic violence has dominated headlines because of the controversy surrounding professional football player Ray Rice. In February, Rice and Janay Palmer, his then fiancée and now wife, had a physical altercation at an Atlantic City casino that left Palmer unconscious. Video tapes surfaced, the first showing Rice dragging Palmer’s limp body from the elevator, the second showing how Palmer was rendered unconscious by Rice’s acts of brutality.

On May 27, Rice was indicted on charges for aggravated assault in the third degree, a felony in the State of New Jersey. However, Rice and Palmer married the next day, and Palmer refused to press charges. Despite video evidence, Rice was allowed to enroll in a pretrial intervention program, which upon his completion would allow him to avoid incarceration, a conviction on his record and even probation.

Since the Ray Rice tapes have surfaced, outrage and calls for resignation have been leveled at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his failure to take appropriate disciplinary measures. While Goodell’s resignation (or firing) may be appropriate in this case, more outrage needs to be directed at the justice system.

As a family law attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, I routinely represent victims and accused abusers in domestic violence cases in both a civil setting and a criminal one. Many first-time domestic offenders have their cases handled in Alabama’s municipal courts, where acts of domestic violence are treated as misdemeanors. These charges can often be avoided if the victim decides not to press charges or if the defendant participates in a deferred prosecution program. These programs usually require the accused to take several weeks of domestic violence classes with the hope that the accused will be rehabilitated.

Admittedly, prosecuting domestic violence has never been easy. Victims are often romantically and financially bound to their abusers and are reluctant to the press charges. However, prosecutors may still pursue cases over the victim’s objections, especially when there is independent, concrete evidence that an attack has occurred such as in the case of Ray Rice.

The Ray Rice case is not a story of preferential treatment of a wealthy, professional athlete. It is not story of an NFL commissioner’s failure to act. It is a highly publisized story of an unfortunate fact: first time domestic violence offenders are not going to face serious legal consequences.