As someone who works on issues of domestic violence, one question I frequently ask is: how can we rely on the state’s violent, coercive power to counter and resolve another issue of ‘private’ violence? The criminal justice system and prosecution of domestic abusers is a solution often put forth when it comes to providing accountability and promoting deterrence in cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Perhaps if we prosecute more often (considering the rate of prosecution is incredibly low for a variety of reasons — patriarchal beliefs among police and the justice system, the intimate relationships between abusers and survivors, the mistrust of many communities of the police and criminal justice system, etc) we can drive down the rate of violence by sending a clear message that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in our society, that we are on the side of victims and survivors.
But I often question our ability to turn, automatically, to the criminal justice system to resolve GBV and DV cases. This system is in itself incredibly violent, unjust, and racist, at least in the United States. Here, the criminal justice system is in essence mass incarceration of minorities, especially African American men, as expounded so perfectly by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. There is a disproportionate incarceration and conviction of black men, so the justice system is not enforced equally on all racial and ethnic groups that may be engaging in violence against women at equal/similar rates. Beyond this, the prison system is incredibly flawed. The conditions can be horrific — not just in the U.S. but around the world. In the U.S., prison rape is incredibly common, frightfully so. There are gendered dynamics and hierarchies within prisons, and prisons can be incredibly violent places that create more trauma. Can a system that produces more injustice, including violent rape, be used to help solve patriarchy? I simply don’t think so, and I am deeply disturbed by these dynamics.
My question is — can we really rely on one inequitable, incredibly unjust system to fix another problem of injustice? In my mind, the criminal justice system involves deep inequity and oppression; and so does patriarchy. We cannot really depend on criminal justice until this system is fair and equitable, in itself.
This excellent article by Victoria Law speaks to this problem in a more eloquent way. She writes,
Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing…..
As these examples demonstrate, strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives, like the women in Halifax, it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.
By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.
I would agree that a sole focus on criminalization is not necessarily productive. We need a more holistic, deeper look at the origin of violence against women and patriarchy, and the social determinants and results of this problem. Moving to criminalization means we are relying on one unjust and patriarchal system (which too often fails survivors and even imprisons them, as the article talks about) that fails to empower anyone or attack the root causes of violence. Until we fix the criminal justice system, in the U.S. and internationally, I don’t think we should feel too comfortable pushing for criminalization as a solution to gendered violence.