Sullivan bill urging free legal aid for domestic violence victims passes Senate

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday night aimed at bolstering free legal resources for victims of domestic violence. The so-called "POWER Act" is the first bill to pass the Senate sponsored by Alaska's freshman Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general, hopes that the bill's bipartisan support will grant it success in the House and that it will extend his efforts to increase the number of attorneys doing pro-bono work for domestic violence victims across the country.

Sullivan co-sponsored the bill with North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who is also a former state attorney general, he said in an interview.

The bill passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote.

If the bill passes the House and is signed into law, it will require every U.S. attorney to hold at least one event every year urging private attorneys to take on free work for domestic violence victims.

Nationally, "there is a woefully large deficit of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault having attorneys," Sullivan said. "And there are studies that show that if a woman who's been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault gets an attorney ... it significantly reduces the likelihood that she'll be abused again," he said.

"So the idea behind this bill is to literally create an army of thousands of lawyers across the country who will raise awareness of the problem, will bring victims hope and through their legal work will help lift victims out of the cycle of violence that they are often trapped in," Sullivan said.

According to the American BAR Association's Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, legal services are key to reducing domestic violence, but current efforts only meet about 20 percent of the needs for low-income people.

The bill itself cites the importance of having an attorney for victims seeking a protective order from the courts -- 83 percent of victims with an attorney are able to obtain an order, compared to only 20 percent of victims without an attorney, according to the bill.

According to the American Bar Association, as many as 86 percent of women who receive a protective order have said abuse either stopped or "was greatly reduced."

Alaska ranks at or near the top in many nationwide measures of sexual and domestic violence.

A 2010 survey by the University of Alaska Justice Center found that as many as 59 percent of women in Alaska have experienced some sort of violence in their lives, and nearly half of Alaska women have experienced violence from an intimate partner.

As the state's attorney general, Sullivan held his own pro-bono workshops to encourage lawyers to work on behalf of victims. In 2014, more than 100 such cases were handled by volunteer lawyers, Sullivan said. "That's literally thousands of hours of volunteer legal assistance for victims who couldn't pay for those legal services, just in Alaska. Think about if you can multiply that nationwide," Sullivan said.

The bill also requires U.S. attorneys in areas with significant Native populations to host at least one event focused on serving those on Native and tribal lands every three years. The U.S. attorney general must also report the results of the program to Congress.

There is no companion bill yet in the House, but Sullivan's bill -- introduced just 10 days before it passed with little difficulty -- could mean an easy passage to the president's desk.

Several groups in Alaska focus on connecting victims with legal services, including the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the Alaska Native Justice Center, and law offices in Anchorage, Bethel, Dillingham, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, Nome and Fairbanks, according to WomensLaw.org, a national advocacy group.