NY Act Would Help Jailed Domestic Violence Survivors

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) proposed by New York State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, if passed, would “allow [New York] courts to take DV into consideration when determining sentencing; authorize judges to sentence survivors to shorter prison terms and alternative-to-incarceration programs, and permit currently incarcerated survivors to apply for resentencing.” The bill is supported in the recommendations of a  report by the Avon Global Center which examined the “barriers to justice faced by women survivor-defendants in New York State.”

The Report revealed

an estimated nine out of ten women in New York prisons are survivors of physical and sexual abuse.  Many of these women are survivors of domestic abuse, and the crimes for which they have been sentenced are often directly related to their abuse.   In many cases, the police failed to investigate and enforce laws against domestic abuse, the attorneys failed to raise the issue during the trial, and the judges failed to consider past victimization and institutional failures during the sentencing phase.  Often, these women receive and serve the maximum sentences in prison for their crimes, with no regard for their prior abuse or the failures of the justice system to first protect them as victims of criminal violence.

Among other recommendations, the Report proposes DVSJA as a step towards helping survivors of abuse obtain justice.  A major way the act will help domestic violence survivors is by allowing “judges discretion to cut a sentence for first-degree manslaughter, for example, from five to 25 years to one to five years, or to probation with alternative programs.” “Alternative programs” could include counseling programs which have been proven to reduce recidivism rates. Indeed, according to the Survivors of Abuse in Prison Fact Sheet the utilization of counseling programs would reduce the already very low recidivism rates for women who commit violent felonies (PDF). Of the women who were incarcerated for a violent felony offense in 1980, “only about 9% were convicted of another violent felony after their release.”

It is incredibly important that domestic violence survivors who committed violent crimes in order to defend themselves from their abusers see justice. According to the Survivors of Abuse in Prison Fact Sheet, a 1996 a government study found that 93% of women convicted of killing intimate partners had been abused by the partner. Another 1996 study showed that the majority of women jailed in the New York City prison system “reported engaging in illegal activity in response to experiences of abuse, the threat of violence, or coercion by their male partners.” In 2005, nearly 25% of women who were incarcerated for homicide in New York prisons reported abuse by the victim of their crime.

If passed, DVSJA would be the first law of its kind in the nation. Under the act, survivors of abuse could have their circumstances taken into consideration when being sentenced for crimes often committed only in an effort to protect themselves from their abuser. To learn more about the barriers to justice faced by jailed survivors of abuse, watch the short documentary by The Women in Prison Project.

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