A task force is recommending a dozen changes to Missouri law and enforcement practices to better protect domestic violence victims, including making legal terms consistent across all of the state's statutes, Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday.
Koster formed the task force in September to review the laws, which have not been fully updated since the 1970s. The group included prosecutors, lawmakers and advocates working to stop domestic violence, and their recommendations could help make the entire state safer, Koster said.
"Although domestic violence may be personal, it is not private," he said during a news conference. "Domestic violence affects our homes, our schools, our businesses and our collective safety."
The task force also recommended that repeat offenders be tried at the state level to face harsher sentences and urged several changes for issuing protection orders.
But one of the most important changes, Koster said, would be to make the definitions of words like "abuse" and "adult" consistent in state law. He said the different definitions in some statutes create confusion among law enforcement and courts.
"Those statute changes will affect real women's lives throughout the state," said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, who was part of the task force.
The task force also recommended that judges be allowed to determine whether a person is being pressured to drop a protection order and urged lawmakers to increase the number of actions that could result in a violation.
Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, said he thinks some domestic violence offenders see orders of protection as meaningless because there are so few violations for which they can be prosecuted.
"Every single effort that we can make to make that literal piece of paper a lot more than just a piece of paper is an extremely important action that can save lives," he said.
Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis, said Tuesday that he would sponsor a bill to make statutory changes the task force had recommended. There is not yet a House sponsor.
Five of the recommendations were aimed at courts and police officers. The task force said law enforcement agencies should form working relationships with domestic violence advocates to give victims more access to shelters and aid.
Heath Chinn, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff's Department, said officers are often the first people to come in contact with victims and need to get them information about finding help.
Chinn is part of the DOVE Unit, a group of law enforcement officials, prosecutors and victim advocates in the Columbia area. He said having similar units in other rural parts of the state would help victims.
"It would help make victims more aware of what is available to them," Chinn, who was not on the attorney general's task force, said during an interview Tuesday.
Colleen Coble, the director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the recommendations were "exceptional."
Coble was part of the task force and said people on all sides of the issue were given a say on the recommendations, which she said would help police and advocates offer more protection to victims.