May 12, 2012

IN THE CONTEXT of domestic violence against women, prosecutors know that attempted strangulation is the critical gateway crime to murder. That’s why it’s so disappointing that Maryland lawmakers failed to enact legislation this year that would have treated strangulation with the severity and punishment it richly deserves. In the absence of such a measure, too many men will get off lightly for a crime that is a shockingly common portent for homicide.

Current state law classifies strangulation as a second-degree assault, carrying a prison term of up to 10 years. That sounds reasonable in theory; in practice it doesn’t work. The reality is that men charged with trying to strangle their girlfriends and wives almost never get the maximum punishment and often get no prison time at all.

The law’s toothlessness stems from language requiring prosecutors to show that the assault caused permanent disability or disfigurement. Even if a man tries to kill a woman, it may leave no lasting physical marks. Too often, that allows defendants to bargain for little or no time behind bars.

State prosecutors backed a bill, sponsored by a pair of Montgomery County Democrats, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais and Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, to reclassify strangulation as a first-degree assault, carrying a maximum 25-year term.

The bill sailed through the Senate but got bogged down at the 11th hour in the House Judiciary Committee. Ultimately, it failed to come to a vote in committee, partly owing to a spat over an unrelated bill and partly to a dispute over whether prosecutors would have to show a defendant’s intent or the physical effects of his assault.

It seems to us that if the intent of an assailant is to “impede the normal breathing or circulation of blood,” as one amendment proposed, that should be grounds to establish a first-degree assault.

Criminal justice has been slow to catch up with the convincing evidence that strangulation foreshadows murder. Lawmakers in Maryland were on the right path, and their failure to enact a bill leaves women at risk. That’s a compelling reason to try again.