Goodmark on “Legal System Fails Abused Women”

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An op-ed by Leigh Goodmark (Baltimore) appears in today’s Baltimore Sun.  Here is an excerpt:

After learning that Topeka, Kan., District Attorney Chad Taylor planned to stop prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases in response to county budget cuts, the Topeka City Council this month repealed its misdemeanor domestic violence statute — effectively decriminalizing some domestic violence offenses in Topeka. Abuse survivor Claudine Dombrowski responded to the city’s action by hurling a pair of dice at the City Council, arguing that they were rolling the dice with women’s lives.

Relying on the criminal justice system to keep women safe from domestic violence may, however, be an even bigger gamble. * * *

Despite the dedication of millions of federal dollars to police, prosecutors and judges since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, rates of domestic violence in the United States have not appreciably declined, instead keeping pace with decreases in the crime rate generally. Studies suggest that relatively few women report domestic violence to police; that most of those arrested for domestic violence are not convicted; and that when abusers are convicted, jail time is rare and minimal. Sociologist Evan Stark has argued that the odds of serving jail time for domestic violence are only slightly better than the odds of winning the lottery. * * *

Criminal justice system reform could solve some of these problems. But the time has come to broaden our thinking about how best to address domestic violence. For too long, the legal system has been the default response to domestic violence in the United States. Such a narrowly crafted response denies justice to women who are unable or unwilling to engage that system. Criminal prosecution cannot heal the injuries that some women experience. A small but growing voice is coalescing around the idea that criminal justice intervention is not the best way to prevent and respond to domestic violence.

Abused women and their advocates are searching for ways to achieve justice without invoking the criminal justice system. Community accountability projects enable women to craft their own responses to domestic violence — responses that give them the validation and vindication they seek. Asian and Pacific Islander groups in the United States have used public shaming to expose men’s abuse of their partners, picketing the homes of abusive men in the hope of developing community support for women subjected to abuse. Other programs focus on changing men’s behavior, using male peer facilitators to help men develop empathy for their partners and confront others engaging in abusive behavior. These efforts have the potential to create real change in men who abuse — change that the criminal justice system has yet to deliver. * * *

The full piece is available here.  Professor Goodmark and other folks at Baltimore are doing lots of good work in leading conversations that encourage serious thinking about the role of law in improving women’s lives.  See, e.g., here.

As I read Professor Goodmark’s op-ed, she raises an important question about the law’s failure to ameliorate both specific incidences of violence against women, as well as widespread discrimination and violence against them.  In that sense, I read Leigh Goodmark’s piece to highlight aspects of what I have called (here) “third-wave feminist legal theory” which includes an emphasis on culture as a means of achieving gender equality.

-Bridget Crawford

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