JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation overhauling Missouri's domestic violence laws for the first time in nearly four decades was approved by the Missouri Senate on Thursday.
The bill includes changes as basic as standardizing definitions for words such as "domestic violence," "abuse," "adult" and "child." It also changes laws regarding orders of protection and requires that some repeat offenders face state — instead of municipal — charges that can carry tougher penalties.
Many of the bill's changes follow the recommendations of a domestic violence task force created by Attorney General Chris Koster. The Senate's 33-0 vote now sends the bill to the House.
Currently in Missouri, the definitions of such words as "adult" and "abuse" vary among different state laws, and there is no state definition of "domestic violence."
"In order to make Missouri's domestic violence laws the most effective, we need to provide courts and law enforcement officers with clear, consistent definitions," said sponsoring Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue.
The bill also makes several changes to the state laws surrounding orders of protection. It would also exempt victims from paying filing fees when they ask a court to enforce a protection order and would allow a judge to customize conditions in an order to fit a specific case.
If an order of protection is withdrawn, the judge would be able to call in the involved parties to ask if it was being withdrawn voluntarily and not because of threats or intimidation.
The legislation gives the juvenile court system control of protection orders shielding minors from other minors. Colleen Coble, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that provision could give parents a legal remedy to protect children from dating violence, which she said is on the rise.
"There are more teenagers coming forward, and they're talking about what they are facing," she said. "Previously there weren't parts of the law to deal with that."
Orders of protection already are required to be entered into a statewide police information system within 24 hours. The new legislation would require that they include information about child custody and visitation orders.
Sgt. Danny Ruth, who is part of a domestic violence unit with the Clay County Sheriff's Office, said his agency already enters that information so that officers have it on hand when they respond to domestic violence calls. If child custody information isn't entered quickly, "the order could be issued, and there may be a violation, and we don't know about it, and then we can't charge them," he said.
The bill would require that state prosecutors rather than local authorities handle cases involving repeat domestic violence offenders, so that they face stiffer penalties if convicted.
The package would put into law several changes recommended by a state task force organized by the attorney general. At a Capitol ceremony for crime victims last week, Koster urged lawmakers in both chambers to approve the measure by the May 13 end of the legislative session.
"Although domestic violence may be personal, it is not private. It is an assault on the person, on families, it is an assault on the community," he said. "It is in everyone's interest that we promote prevention, hold batterers accountable and provide security to those in need."