Crime Bill and Women

AMID the wrangling in Congress over supposed ``pork'' in the crime bill, which finally passed in the Senate last week, one component of the measure quietly escaped controversy and budget cuts: the Violence Against Women Act.

First introduced six years ago, the act earmarks $1.6 billion for efforts to protect women and children. It will provide money for a national hot line for victims of domestic violence. It will fund efforts to educate police, judges, and prosecutors about sex-based crimes. It will also encourage states to mandate the arrest of abusive husbands and boyfriends.

Another provision requires violent sex offenders to register with state law-enforcement agencies after they are released from prison.

The act is a heartening measure of changing attitudes toward women. Domestic violence, once widely regarded by police officers and judges as largely a private family matter, now commands far more serious attention.

Statistics on domestic abuse range from a Justice Department estimate of less than half a million cases to as many as 6 million incidents a year - a number some critics claim is wildly inflated. Whatever the actual figures, the need for attention and systematic action remains clear.

Even $1.6 billion, as welcome as it is, does not begin to fund the programs and salaries needed to effect dramatic change.

And money never represents the ultimate solution. The larger, long-term challenge will be to keep changing public attitudes so that domestic abuse and other violent crimes against women are widely viewed as unacceptable.

Already, according to a study released this month by Murray Straus, a University of New Hampshire specialist in domestic violence, only 1 American in 10 believes it is all right for a husband to slap a wife. That represents a significant decline in the past quarter century. Even so, 1 in 10 is one too many on a matter that tests not only the compassion but the morality of Americans.

Still, in a bill where everything seemed up for question and no consensus existed, it is heartening to have this one clear-cut issue also seem clear to everybody in Congress.

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