Professional Sports and Domestic Violence: Celebrity Favoritism or Weak Domestic Violence Laws?

As a society, it seems we have simply come to expect that rich and famous individuals will always find ways to get off easier in matters of crime and punishment. The latest case to prove the legal system's celebrity favoritism? Most will quickly point to former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice's lenient treatment in the aftermath of a vicious domestic assault on his fiancee in an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino.

Despite video evidence which clearly shows Rice punching the victim with such force that she was knocked unconscious, criminal prosecutors in New Jersey allowed the NFL player to enter a pretrial intervention program (PTI) that will spare him jail time, probation and even a criminal record if he does not commit another offense.

The outcry over this has been intense, and rightly so. Why was Rice allowed into a program that has a less than 1 percent acceptance rate? Is it just another twisted instance of "celebrity justice"?

As a family law attorney who represents victims of domestic violence, I can tell you that the biggest factor at play in all DV cases is the strength or weakness of domestic violence law in the state where the case is brought. Although New Jersey, where I practice, is frequently touted as having the most stringent DV laws in the nation, we still have a ways to go in how well these laws function to protect victims and punish offenders. I would put forth that Rice's lenient treatment was more a side effect of current law than a decision solely to do with wealth and status.

This is because for first-time offenders, like Rice, the courts tend to steer domestic violence cases toward counseling programs instead of incarceration in some cases, especially when victims decline prosecution and/or decide to stay in a relationship with their abuser (as is the case with Rice, who is now married to the woman he assaulted). Jane Shivas, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women, best summed up the Rice situation. "For a case like this to end this way is not uncommon. But it certainly is unfortunate."

However, in a testimony to New Jersey's desire to protect victims of domestic violence, even before the Rice scandal broke out, measures were being taken in the New Jersey Legislature to further clarify and toughen DV laws. There is now renewed energy in seeing to it that these laws are passed. Among the proposed measures is a new rule allowing victims of domestic violence to testify via closed circuit video. This is so important because one of the primary reasons why DV cases are dropped is because the victim is afraid to testify in person. The new bill also calls for a systemic review of all other pre-existing DV laws, something for which the timing couldn't be better.

You might not live anywhere near New Jersey, but chances are you know someone who has been affected by domestic violence. As part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, one step we could all take would be to contact our legislators and ask them what's being done to better protect domestic violence victims in court.

After all, if we truly want and expect justice to be served, whether someone is a famous athlete or not, empowering our courts to do so is the best place to start.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Should you know someone or are a victim of domestic violence in New Jersey, we have additional information that may help: