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Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

by Leigh Goodmark
Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

by Leigh Goodmark

Paperback(First Edition)

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Decriminalizing Domestic Violence asks the crucial, yet often overlooked, question of why and how the criminal legal system became the primary response to intimate partner violence in the United States. It introduces readers, both new and well versed in the subject, to the ways in which the criminal legal system harms rather than helps those who are subjected to abuse and violence in their homes and communities, and shares how it drives, rather than deters, intimate partner violence. The book examines how social, legal, and financial resources are diverted into a criminal legal apparatus that is often unable to deliver justice or safety to victims or to prevent intimate partner violence in the first place. Envisioned for both courses and research topics in domestic violence, family violence, gender and law, and sociology of law, the book challenges readers to understand intimate partner violence not solely, or even primarily, as a criminal law concern but as an economic, public health, community, and human rights problem. It also argues that only by viewing intimate partner violence through these lenses can we develop a balanced policy agenda for addressing it. At a moment when we are examining our national addiction to punishment, Decriminalizing Domestic Violence offers a thoughtful, pragmatic roadmap to real reform.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295575
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Series: Gender and Justice , #7
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 608,527
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Leigh Goodmark is Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the author of A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System. 

Read an Excerpt


Intimate Partner Violence Is ...

A Criminal Justice Problem?

Ensuring that the state treated intimate partner violence like any other crime was a cornerstone of the early antiviolence movement. When police and prosecutors were slow to exercise their power to protect women subjected to abuse, the antiviolence movement used litigation, research, and the political process to leverage state engagement via the criminal legal system. Criminalization brought tangible benefits to some people subjected to abuse. But the criminal legal system has failed to deter intimate partner violence, and the harms of criminalization are significant enough to justify abandoning the use of the criminal legal system in cases of intimate partner violence.


Although intimate partner violence was criminalized as early as 1641 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, levels of state intervention have varied over time. By the 1970s the criminal legal system was loath to intervene into what it saw as private family disputes. Police officers were trained not to make arrests in intimate partner violence cases. Police instructional manuals suggested that officers tell men who had abused their partners to take a walk around the block to cool down. Even if police had probable cause to make an arrest, police officers in most states could not make a warrantless arrest in an intimate partner violence case. If an arrest was made, the likelihood of prosecution was low.

States received federal funding related to intimate partner violence in the 1970s, but that funding was not primarily intended to shore up the criminal legal response. Instead, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration provided funding to a number of pilot projects intended to help law enforcement clarify their role in responding to intimate partner violence in relation to the efforts of community organizations and social services providers. That funding disappeared in 1980; new funding for the criminal legal system would not be authorized until the passage of VAWA in 1994. VAWA would, for the first time, express a clear federal preference for law enforcement to lead the response to intimate partner violence.

Beginning in the late 1970s, antiviolence advocates sought to shift the public perception of intimate partner violence, making the case that intimate partner violence should be treated like any other crime. New criminal laws were not, strictly speaking, necessary to realize this goal; those who used violence could have been arrested and prosecuted under existing assault laws, for example. The real problem was the failure of police and prosecutors to enforce the laws. Frustrated with police inaction, feminist lawyers sued police departments in New York City and Oakland, California, over their "arrest-avoidance" policies. As a result of Bruno v. Codd, police in New York City promised to respond swiftly to intimate partner violence calls, make an arrest whenever they had reasonable cause to believe that a felony had been committed or a protective order had been violated, and remain on the scene to prevent further violence against the person seeking protection. Laurie Woods, the lawyer who filed Bruno v. Codd, believed strongly that arrest and prosecution were necessary to challenge the social conditions that permitted intimate partner violence to flourish and saw criminalization as preferable to any other response to intimate partner violence. In response to a similar lawsuit filed in California, Scott v. Hart, the Oakland Police Department rescinded its arrest-avoidance policy and agreed to treat intimate partner violence like other crimes. Pauline Gee, who brought the California case, saw state intervention as neutralizing the power imbalances between men and women, making the criminal system a "path to women's liberation."

The failure to protect women subjected to abuse was becoming increasingly expensive for cities. On June 10, 1983, Tracey Thurman's husband, Charles, stabbed Tracey repeatedly in the chest, neck, and throat; after police arrived at the scene, Charles dropped the bloody knife and kicked Tracey in the head. Charles ran away, returned, dropped their toddler son on top of Tracey, and kicked Tracey in the head a second time despite the presence of police. Charles continued to threaten Tracey while police looked on. Only after Charles approached Tracey while she was lying on a stretcher did police arrest him. Tracey had repeatedly called police for protection prior to the June 1983 assaults. In 1984 Tracey Thurman won a multimillion-dollar judgment against the city of Torrington, Connecticut. Concerned about similar litigation, jurisdictions throughout the United States looked for innovative police practices that would shield them from liability. They found a model in Oregon's 1977 law requiring police to make arrests in intimate partner violence cases when the officer had probable cause to believe that an assault had been committed or when a person holding a protective order feared imminent serious harm — the precursor to mandatory arrest laws.

Research seemed to support the intuition that changes to arrest policy in cases involving intimate partner violence would prevent further lawsuits. In studies in 1981 and 1982 in Minneapolis, researchers Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk found that arrest was associated with lower rates of recidivism by men who abused their partners. Despite Sherman's warning that the research should be replicated before conclusions could be drawn about the effectiveness of mandatory arrest, antiviolence advocates lobbied hard for the adoption of such policies, and municipalities across the United States quickly adopted them. Sherman's warning was prescient. Later research on the effects of arrest policies was mixed. Replication studies found that mandatory arrest laws had deterrent effects in some locations, no effect in other locations, and contributed to increases in violence in others. Nonetheless, mandatory arrest policies would be bolstered in 1994 by the passage of VAWA, which initially required that states enact mandatory arrest policies as a condition of receiving federal funding under the act. As of 2014, twenty states and the District of Columbia had enacted mandatory arrest policies.

Antiviolence advocates next turned their attention to low prosecution rates. Prosecutors complained that they could not prove their cases without the cooperation of those who had been abused. Witnesses often refused to testify, however, citing fear of retaliation by their partners, concern about exposing their partners to criminal liability, or opposition to having their partners incarcerated, because incarceration would deprive them of economic, emotional, parenting, and other forms of support. Prosecutors, therefore, would not bring intimate partner violence cases to court. No-drop prosecution was among the policies designed to address this problem. In no-drop prosecution jurisdictions, lack of victim cooperation did not prevent prosecutors from filing cases. Instead, they pursued any case where the evidence was strong enough to litigate, with or without the willing assistance of the person subjected to abuse. In soft no-drop jurisdictions, prosecutors provided inducements (like support services) for people to testify but did not compel their participation. In hard no-drop jurisdictions, prosecutors used whatever means necessary to make their cases, including subpoenaing unwilling witnesses, asking that subpoenas be enforced by arresting witnesses to ensure their attendance at court, and, in extreme cases, imprisoning people subjected to abuse as material witnesses prior to trial. By 1996 two-thirds of prosecutors' offices had adopted (primarily soft) no-drop policies.

Antiviolence advocates did not advance this carceral agenda in a vacuum. Efforts to increase the criminalization of intimate partner violence paralleled the ascendancy of neoliberalism as the guiding philosophy for U.S. social policy. Neoliberalism, narrowly defined, is a system of economic ideas and policies that emphasizes small government and market-based solutions to social and economic problems. Neoliberalism has (perhaps counterintuitively) spurred the use of criminal law, with mass incarceration replacing social welfare policy as the response to structural economic and political issues. Antiviolence reformers took advantage of the growing interest in and money for carceral responses, advocating for increased funding and training for police, prosecutors, and courts, as well as for laws and policies that prioritized the criminal legal response to intimate partner violence.

By the time VAWA was adopted in 1994, the antiviolence movement's embrace of the criminalization agenda was clear. VAWA provided funding incentives that firmly entrenched that agenda. VAWA allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for training and support of courts, police, and prosecutors, creating a powerful motivation for law enforcement to take the helm of antiviolence efforts. VAWA also created monetary incentives for antiviolence advocates to collaborate with law enforcement, committing the antiviolence movement more firmly to the criminal legal response. By 2003 many in the antiviolence movement agreed with George W. Bush when he stated that "government has got a duty to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, as part of our duty. If you treat something as a serious crime, then there must be serious consequences, otherwise it's not very serious. ... Our prosecutors are doing their job. They're finding the abusers, and they're throwing the book at them. And that's important."


Criminalizing intimate partner violence does offer benefits to some people subjected to abuse. Intervention by the criminal legal system can give people distance from abuse. Police intervention can interrupt a violent incident and remove the offender from the scene. Courts can issue criminal stay-away orders to prevent unwanted contact between people subjected to abuse and their partners both before and after prosecution. Successful prosecution can ensure that those who use violence enter batterer intervention programs as a condition of their sentences, which may lead to changes in behavior. Prosecution can send the message that people are serious about ending the abuse; even the threat of prosecution can give people subjected to abuse some leverage with their partners. The criminal legal system can provide resources, including victim-witness advocates and crime victim compensation funds, to people subjected to abuse. Incarceration and other forms of monitoring can provide a respite that affords people subjected to abuse peace of mind and the ability to implement short- and long-term safety plans.

Ensuring accountability for illegal behavior is another goal of criminal interventions. Accountability — the belief that those who abuse should be held responsible for their behavior by experiencing negative consequences through punishment, preferably via the criminal legal system — is one of the central tenets of the antiviolence movement. Arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration are all employed to that end. Using the criminal legal system to address intimate partner violence can also underscore the state's condemnation of intimate partner violence, a stance that both vindicates the experiences of the individual subjected to abuse and may help to change community attitudes about the acceptability of intimate partner violence.

Finally, criminalization can satisfy the desire for retribution among those who define justice through punishment. Retribution requires that a wrongdoer receive a punishment befitting the crime; wrongs are righted through the offender's suffering. Punishment expresses society's condemnation of the act being punished and reinforces societal norms repudiating such behavior. Retributive justice delivered through the state also prevents individuals from seeking revenge. If an offender is arrested, convicted, and given some punishment that the person subjected to abuse deems proportionate to the harm suffered, that person's justice needs may be met. Because the state has a monopoly on legal punishment in the United States, only the criminal legal system has the potential to meet the justice goals of those who define justice retributively.


But in the past several years the idea of regulating behavior through criminalization has been seriously questioned, both generally and in the specific context of intimate partner violence. Criminalization has been called a "remarkable" failure, "perhaps the greatest in American history." Overcriminalization has driven disproportionately high incarceration rates in the United States, particularly for marginalized groups. Excessive criminalization renders criminal penalties meaningless. And criminalization cannot solve America's social problems.

Hyperincarceration is a relatively new phenomenon in America. Spurred by "tough on crime" rhetoric, legislators have significantly increased both the number of crimes and the duration of sentences over the past forty years. Between 1970 and 2010 the state and federal prison population grew from 196,000 to 1.4 million people. Between 2010 and 2016 that number increased to 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, and more than 8 million living under some form of state control (for example, in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or serving community sanctions). The United States incarcerates 730 of every 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. One in three African American men, one in seven Latino men, and one in seventeen white men spend time in prison during their lifetimes. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people are also jailed at disproportionate rates.

Hyperincarceration is problematic not just because of the sheer number of people it affects, but also because of the problematic consequences of incarceration. The impact of hyperincarceration ripples out into families and communities, as political scientist Marie Gottschalk explains: "The carceral state directly shapes, and in some cases deforms, the lives of tens of millions of people who have never served a day in jail or prison or been arrested. An estimated eight million minors — or one in ten children — have had an incarcerated parent. ... Millions of people reside in neighborhoods and communities that have been depopulated and upended as so many of their young men and women have been sent away to prison during what should be the prime of their lives."

The excessive use of criminalization to address social problems has decreased the expressive and actual effectiveness of criminal punishment while at the same time shielding policymakers from having to confront the underlying issues driving criminality. Criminalization can make lawmakers feel as though they have done something to address a problem, but legislators do not, by and large, analyze the effectiveness of those actions in any meaningful way. Criminalization is a "one-way ratchet" — lawmakers are unlikely to revisit or rescind criminal laws that have already been enacted, regardless of their impact or lack thereof. As a result the United States is "criminalizing, recriminalizing, and overcriminalizing all forms of conduct, much of it innocuous, to the point of erasing the line between tolerable and intolerable behavior." When everything is criminal, it is hard to know what is truly wrong, or how to prevent offending.

Finally, criminalization is an ineffective response to the intractable social problems faced by the United States. In recent years the political system has failed to allocate resources to pressing social problems like poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. The neoliberal turn in American public policy, and the resulting dismantling of the welfare state, left many communities struggling and underresourced. Rather than provide low-income communities with social services, the U.S. government has increasingly poured resources into the criminal legal system, using that system to address the consequences of unresolved social problems. As activist Angela Davis has observed, incarceration is like magic, making societal problems seem to disappear. But criminal law is poorly suited to solve these types of problems, rooted as they are in both individual social circumstances and larger systemic contexts.

Critiques of the Criminalization of Intimate Partner Violence

At the first Incite! Women of Color Against Violence conference in 2000, Davis linked the general critique of criminalization with the specific critique of the criminalization of intimate partner violence. She stated, "The major strategy relied on by the women's anti-violence movement of criminalizing violence against women will not put an end to violence against women — just as imprisonment has not put an end to 'crime' in general."


Excerpted from "Decriminalizing Domestic Violence"
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Copyright © 2018 The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Intimate Partner Violence Is...
1. A Criminal Justice Problem?
2. An Economic Problem
3. A Public Health Problem
4. A Community Problem
5. A Human Rights Problem
6. A Balanced Policy Approach


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