criminal justice, public interest law, social change, women's rights

State violence and domestic abuse

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.

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One thought on “State violence and domestic abuse”

  1. RootedInBeing says:

    Hi Akhila! I commented on this exact article on FB the other day, in response to a friend who posted it. What is the solution until?…. It is such a massive overhaul that is needed. I do believe intervention is needed more at the community level, but I also think reform is the right step until… which is what many, dare I say most, DV shelters and agencies are pushing toward currently. Here is what I wrote on FB.

    ” I think there are strong reforms being pushed for, and more importantly, happening in many cities across the U.S. I don’t think it is “utopian” discussing this when it is happening and the DV world is pushing for it and making grounds. Advocates from DV shelters are beginning to be funded and placed within police stations and work with the police through giving trainings as well as going out in the field with them. The new wave of policing and addressing DV cases is slowly taking hold. I am optimistic about it because advocates are the ones on the frontlines of this reform and are part of the conversation. In many cities police are now required to refer to the DV advocate in their stations/districts whom follows up with survivors, creating a way higher percentage of women who have access to services and take advantage of it, with the focus on the survivor and not the abuser nor criminal justice element. Whether we like it or not the police are the first contact on the majority of violent DV cases. The fact that DV advocates are able to be on those frontlines with them is MASSIVE. We still have such a long way to go, police need more in-depth training on the dynamics of DV because their approaches are still woefully unsophisticated. The court system, the attitudes of many judges, and the legal system a woman goes through once she finds herself in the system can be oppressive, degrading, and traumatic given the multiple people she has to talk to, the risk to her safety for stepping up, and the misunderstanding of many professionals in the system that can put her life at risk, not to mention affect her mental health. The police are the ones who see and act on so many DV cases. It may not be the answer but it is the reality. We have to work with reality. We have to be able to provide the safety for a woman to step up when she is ready to. Advocacy is based on following the lead of the survivor. It’s not about forcing someone to get involved in the legal system. Having advocates within the police system and on the frontlines can at the very least provide eyes, ears, and a voice that comes from the DV world when women find themselves involved with the police. We need more than just a conversation on race, class, and gender in this country, although even a conversation is difficult to be had at this point. The reality is we have to work and push for what we can do within the system until…..”

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