Domestic violence survivors are one of the most criminalized groups of women in the United States. A Department of Justice report found that more than half of women in jails and prisons were victims of abuse prior to incarceration.
Trans women of color also face disproportionate rates of violence and incarceration. People who are transgender are 1.9 times more likely to experience domestic violence than other people in the LGBTQ community. Instead of receiving help and protection, they often experience further violence at the hands of police, including harassment and arrest. Trans women are more likely to experience violence when interacting with the police after a domestic violence incident.
When women have no choice but to injure or kill an abusive partner to save their own lives, they are punished for it.
Research by both the NY Department of Corrections and a California state prison concluded that the majority of women incarcerated for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. In fact, the California study found that an astronomical 93 percent of women convicted of killing an intimate partner had been abused by that partner. Black women are three times more likely to die at the hands of a current or former partner and are also disproportionately criminalized for survival strategies and defending themselves.
Mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence police calls have not only led to more women being arrested, but devastatingly for Black women in particular, increased likelihood of being killed by the abusive partner. A Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment study found that among African-American victims, arrest increased mortality by 98 percent, while among white victims, mortality increased 9 percent.
Clearly, our predominant system for “helping” victims of domestic violence, which relies on police, courts and prisons, isn’t actually helping them. To make things worse, when women have no choice but to injure or kill an abusive partner to save their own lives, they are punished for it. The following three women’s stories are illustrative of how the criminal legal system heaps further violence on survivors of domestic violence who defend themselves.
On May 16, 2013, Cherelle Baldwin, mother of a 19-month-old son, was attacked by her abusive ex-boyfriend Jeffrey Brown, inside of her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. When police arrived, Brown was dead, crushed between Baldwin’s car and a cement wall in the driveway.
Cherelle told police officers that he had climbed through her window, choked her with a belt, and when she attempted to flee in her car, he also got into the car, and choked her again. When getting out of the car, she fell; the car ran over her leg and she wasn’t sure how Brown ended up in front of the car. The police chose not to believe Cherelle; instead, in their affidavit, they said that with Cherelle behind the wheel, the car accelerated with no signs of stopping, and that she sustained a leg injury when the car impacted the wall.
Cherelle was charged with murder, with bail set at an astronomical $1 million. After a six-week trial, the jury acquitted her, but the state’s attorney’s office said that they would retry the case. The lead-up to the incident demonstrates just one of the ways that the legal system fails many women who are in danger: Although Baldwin had a court order against Brown, the order did not stop him from threatening and attacking her.
A study in the Journal of Family Violence found that Black women experienced a smaller decline in violence after receiving a protective order and were 10 times more likely to report re-abuse than white women. Her attorney, Miles Gerety said: “If there’s a court order protecting a woman, at the very least, the woman who is the beneficiary of that order shouldn’t have to retreat. The woman should not have any duty to retreat from the person who is told not to assault, harass and threaten her.”
Similar to Cherelle Baldwin, in 2007, Tewkunzi Green was attacked by her ex-boyfriend Montral Fleming. As she was being strangled and losing consciousness, while holding their infant, Tewkunzi grabbed what turned out to be a knife and stabbed Montral. He died during surgery at a hospital. Tewkunzi was afraid that if she lost consciousness, she would drop her baby. She was sentenced to 34 years in prison in 2009.
In states and cities across the country, women who report intimate partner violence can face a domino effect of consequences, including eviction from housing under nuisance ordinances.
Another Illinois mother named Paris Knox is imprisoned for killing her abusive partner. She started dating Malteeny Taylor in 2003; shortly after Knox became pregnant, Taylor became abusive. He often abused her in front of other people, with witnesses stating at trial how he had pulled her by her hair down the street and smacked her to the ground. She called the police after one incident in 2004, saying Taylor had hit her. In 2004, Paris was arrested for the murder of Taylor, which she says happened in self-defense. In 2005, she was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison; her case is currently on appeal.
What these three women have in common is that they are Black mothers who have been criminalized for protecting themselves against domestic violence. Approximately 4 out of 10 Black women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010.
In addition, Baldwin, Green and Knox were all trying to protect their children. Cherelle Baldwin’s attorney noted that if her son had been hurt by Jeffrey Brown, she would have been charged with “failure to protect.” Paris Knox was actually holding her infant son when Malteeny Taylor tried to strangle her.
In 29 states, there are laws that criminalize a parent’s failure to protect their children from abuse, and prosecutors in 19 additional states can use laws such as criminal negligence of a child. Many times, reporting domestic violence can lead to mothers being investigated by child protective services. In Chicago, until 2014, when the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) set new rules, a mother who reported domestic violence could be charged with neglect (Chicago Sun-Times). In states and cities across the country, women who report intimate partner violence can face a domino effect of consequences, including eviction from housing under nuisance ordinances (Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel).
Fortunately, there are organizations across the country working hard to convince judges to take a history of domestic violence into account in the sentencing of women who injure or kill their abusive partners.
In New York City, a coalition of over 1,600 people, led by the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project, are working to pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. The law would allow judges to sentence survivors convicted of crimes directly related to an abuser’s violence to lower prison terms, and in some cases, to community-based alternatives to incarceration.
In Illinois, after years of writing, revising and negotiating, a coalition of organizations were successful in getting the Corrections Mitigating Factor bill passed. This bill will allow some incarcerated women who are survivors of intimate partner violence to apply for resentencing, and the judge can consider the domestic violence as a mitigating factor.
These reforms are valuable, in that they will hopefully lead to fewer women being imprisoned and a reduction in sentence lengths. However, beyond sentencing reconsiderations, we must question whether these women should be removed from their families and communities at all. The majority of women in prison are mothers, and the disappearance of mothers from their families and communities is devastating. Many of the national mainstream antiviolence and feminist organizations were largely silent as Marissa Alexander was criminalized by the state of Florida for firing a warning shot to ward off an abusive husband. Since these organizations were often the ones advocating for an increased reliance on policing and the carceral system as a strategy to end violence against women, they should also be demanding an end to the criminalization of survivors of violence.
Women shouldn’t have to fit a narrow ideal of what a victim of domestic violence looks like to deserve to be advocated for. It’s time for the most vulnerable women – who are victimized by domestic violence and then criminalized by the state – to be at the center of discussion about ending violence against women.