Working with the legal community to stem sexual assault and domestic violence is too important to let politics get in the way. I’m grateful that my colleagues were willing to sweep aside differences, as evidenced by their unanimous votes in both chambers, to pass the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act, which was signed into law by the president on Sept. 4, 2018.
The POWER Act — introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and me in the Senate, and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., in the House — will help enlist lawyers across the country to provide much-needed legal assistance to victims and survivors to help break the cycle of abuse.
Let me be clear about the problem. Domestic violence happens every hour, every day, in every single part of our country. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 25 percent of American women will be victims of domestic assault in their lifetimes. On average, three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner every day in the United States, according to the Violence Policy Center.
As Alaska’s former attorney general, and now as a U.S. senator, I have seen the faces behind these statistics. No place is immune. Sexual assault and domestic violence are happening in small towns and big cities, on college campuses and in suburban homes, in Indian country and in Alaska Native villages. This violence transcends political affiliation, race and socioeconomic status.
There are no simple solutions to combat this issue, but experts agree that securing a lawyer for victims is the best way to get them out of their situation and to get them shelter, housing and medical care. When abuse victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically. One study found that 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order, compared to 32 percent of victims without an attorney.
Unfortunately, many victims simply can’t afford a lawyer. Those who perpetrate crimes are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment the right to counsel. Victims are not. Indeed, on a single day, nearly 10,000 requests for services, including legal representation, for domestic violence survivors were unmet, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
With the POWER Act, I envision an army of lawyers to defend victims of abuse. It has worked before. As Alaska’s attorney general, I, along with advocacy groups and lawyers from across the state, organized pro bono summits around the state as part of a larger campaign to end domestic abuse and sexual assault. The purpose of these summits, which began in 2010, was to raise awareness and to create connections between the legal community and nonprofit organizations in order to come up with the best ways to provide legal services to victims. By 2014, 107 cases were handled by volunteer attorneys, providing thousands of hours of volunteer legal assistance to victims who couldn’t pay for them.
Those efforts continue in Alaska, and the great work the lawyers are doing there will be the model for other lawyers across the country.
Much like those pro bono summits in Alaska, the POWER Act mandates that each year for four years, the chief judge of each federal judicial district across the country hold at least one event promoting pro bono legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The law also requires that events be held in areas with high numbers of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, with a focus on addressing these issues among Native populations. It’s envisioned that these summits, like the ones in Alaska, will maximize awareness and bring lawyers together with local advocacy groups and ultimately with victims to get them the legal services they need.
As we all know, more and more brave women and men are speaking out about abuse by those more powerful than they are, and I applaud them for their courage and for lighting a path for others to follow.
We need to make sure that when they do speak out, when they do decide that they must seek a change, they are protected and they have an advocate — a lawyer — on their side.
This new law is another step forward in the long-term fight to end the cycle of domestic violence so that all Americans are guaranteed the right to be safe in their homes and communities.
Dan Sullivan is a Republican U.S. senator from Alaska and former attorney general of Alaska.
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