effective, and nondiscriminatory implementation of criminal
justice system powers is essential to ending violence against
women, both for freeing individual women and for ending
the world wide epidemic of violence against women.
No doubt, all
segments of society must make profound changes before violence
against women will be eliminated. But once there is violence
or threat of violence, the criminal justice system is the
only sector of society that has the power and authority
to step in and stop the violence. The criminal justice system
alone is invested with the power and authority to enforce
the laws against violence, to carry out a criminal investigation,
to arrest and detain a perpetrator, and to provide justice
for criminal offenses. If the criminal justice system doesn't
fully do its part to put the perpetrator under control,
you can social work these cases endlessly. In all likelihood
the perpetrator will just turn around and easily undo any
peace and equilibrium you and the victim have been able
to establish in her life.
The pivotal importance
of the criminal justice system in stopping violence against
women can be illustrated in both the positive and the negative.
On the positive side, a handful of diverse jurisdictions
around the country that have implemented a consistent, aggressive,
and modern criminal justice response to domestic violence
have been able to reduce their domestic violence homicide
rates by over 60% in just a matter of years. If domestic
violence were a disease, this kind of dramatic reduction
in deaths would be heralded a miracle cure.
You may recall
a series of studies from the late 1980's which found that
arresting perpetrators resulted in only minimal reduction
of future violence in the relationship. These studies are
still used to argue against the necessity of a strong criminal
justice system response, so it's important to be aware of
a core flaw, not in the studies themselves, but in the conditions
at the time. The system in place at the time consisted principally
of arrests by themselves, without the crucial follow-up
investigations and prosecutions in place. It was like trying
to make the airplane fly with only one wing. It's easy to
see that if perpetrators are merely arrested and detained
for a couple days and then let go without follow-through,
they are likely to be even more dangerous to victims.
It wasn't until
the early 1990's when a few jurisdictions, most notably
San Diego, CA and Quincy, Massachusetts, began to pioneer
the more modern, comprehensive law enforcement approach
to domestic violence. In addition to pro-arrest policies,
the new approach included a complete police investigation
with an eye to prosecution, prosecutorial follow-up, no
diversion/no-drop policies, victim support, and intensified
probation monitoring and/or correctional follow through.
It was only when this full spectrum criminal justice response
was applied to domestic violence that the immediate and
dramatic reductions in domestic violence homicides took
place in those pioneering cities. These positive and striking
results have now been successfully reproduced in a number
of other jurisdictions throughout the country.
No other approach
to domestic violence - not educational, therapy based, and
not diversion programs - has shown anywhere near the effectiveness
and impact obtained by the implementation of a comprehensive
criminal justice response. If anything, studies of non-criminal
justice remedies to domestic violence repeatedly demonstrate
their ineffectiveness in bringing about any significant
reduction in the levels of violence.
Given the proven
and unequivocal benefits of a full criminal justice response,
it's sad that still today, the pivotal importance of good
criminal justice system response is still more often manifested
in the negative.
On the negative
side, the consequences of law enforcement failures to implement
their powers on behalf of women are all too evident by tracing
law enforcement histories leading up to domestic violence
homicides. What's found in case after case where women have
been murdered by their partners is a history of gross failures
of law enforcement to respond properly to the victims' previous
requests for help. Half-baked investigations, officer bias
against women, contempt of victims, inadequate prosecution,
slap-on-the-wrist sentencing, careless follow-up, and overall
system disregard paves the road to one domestic violence
homicide after another. Sloppy law enforcement response
emboldens the perpetrators, throws the women into despair,
and leads to an incalculable number of severe injuries and
deaths to women.
A year 2002,
Domestic Violence Fatality Review from Washington State
aptly names this all too common inadequate law enforcement
response to domestic violence "the meaningless processing
of cases". All too often, instead of implementing their
powers on the victim's behalf, criminal justice officials
were found to be carelessly handing the cases off from one
to the next. Perpetrators were never really held accountable
despite multiple rounds through the system, and ultimately
the women were murdered.
When the criminal
justice system withholds its powers from victims of rape
and domestic violence, it bolsters the perpetrators, and,
in fact, increases the danger to the victim. The perpetrators
are emboldened by the immense authority behind the system's
could-care-less attitude. The perpetrators feel they've
been given the ultimate green light to carry on with the
violence or to escalate. In fact, once law enforcement responds
carelessly, it's not uncommon for perpetrators to invoke
law enforcement authority in taunting the victim. "Go
ahead, call the Sheriff," Avelino Macias would taunt
his estranged wife Teresa, "The Sheriff protects me
more than they protect you."
The victim, on
the other hand, is dangerously weakened and driven into
despair by the system's denial of help. Right at the moment
she takes the great risk of exposing her intent to confront
the perpetrator by bringing in law enforcement, she is betrayed
by inadequate law enforcement response in front of the perpetrator.
"Instead of helping me," Teresa had told her mother
regarding authorities' responses to her calls for help,
"they sunk me even more." Like many victims of
domestic violence homicide, Teresa had been driven into
such deep despair by the Sheriff's repeated disregard of
her more than 25 calls for help, she had given up on calling
the Sheriff for help in the weeks before Avelino lay in
wait and executed her. (See "Women
Don't Have to Die.")
Nor do you have
to limit your observations to domestic violence homicides
to see the harm of law enforcement disregard for violence
against women. The same can be seen in the law enforcement
histories of so many cases where there are serious injuries.
Or in cases of serial rapists or serial child molesters.
If you dig out the law enforcement histories in these felony
cases, here again you'll most always find a trail of law
enforcement disregard of the perpetrator's prior lower level
violence against women and children.
Given the increased
danger to women created by official's denial of protection
and justice, it should be clear that any police officer
or prosecutor who routinely mishandles violence against
women, over the course of his or her career, or even over
the course of a year, is more dangerous to women than a
hundred batterers and rapists.
if you look at the law enforcement history in cases of serial
killers and mass murderers, you'll also frequently find
a trail of inadequate law enforcement response to the perpetrator's
earlier violence against women. A current case in the news
is that of John Muhammad whose sniper killing spree in the
fall of 2002 held the entire populace of Washington DC under
siege for weeks and resulted in the killing of 13 people
and the wounding of 5.
In the two years
prior to that killing spree at least three police agencies,
the Tacoma PD, the Bellingham PD, and the area Sheriff's
Department had failed to respond properly to Muhammad's
domestic violence related crimes against his wife and children
and against the mother of Jahn Malvo, Muhammad's juvenile
accomplice in the killing spree. These law enforcement agencies
never once arrested Muhammad, nor obtained an arrest warrant
for these crimes, despite the fact that Muhammad had abducted
and concealed his children from his wife for over a year,
despite the fact that he had made threats to kill that were
heard by credible witnesses, and despite the fact that law
enforcement was in touch with Muhammad and had ample evidence
to prove those crimes.
As a point of
insight into Tacoma Police mentality it's worth noting that
in that same time period Tacoma PD had obtained an arrest
warrant for Muhammad - But that arrest warrant had nothing
to do with domestic violence. Tacoma PD obtained the arrest
warrant because Muhammad had shoplifted $27 worth of meat
from a Tacoma store. The Tacoma PD took stronger action
on behalf of the store owner's loss of $27 worth of meat
than on behalf of Muhammad's wife, including when Muhammad
abducted and concealed their three children for over a year.
It's also worth
noting that in April, 2003, Tacoma Police Chief Brame shot
and killed his own wife in front of their two children.
of Avoiding the Criminal Justice System. If you are
a victim advocate reading this, it may seem silly to belabor
the point that effective criminal justice system response
is essential to stopping violence against women. But there
are many women in the violence against women movement who
are so disgusted by the sexism, the racism, and all the
other abuses of power in the criminal justice system, that
they are desperately looking for ways to circumvent the
system altogether. They point not only to the system's mishandling
of violence against women, but also to the system's persistent
discriminatory violations of defendant's rights as well,
especially abuses against defendants of color. And the point
is undeniably true. The criminal justice system, probably
more than any other public entity, abuses its powers in
a highly discriminatory manner, and, in fact, frequently
actively uses its immense powers to enforce existing inequalities
and injustices in the social order.
But it would
be as foolhardy to divert women's energies away from the
criminal justice system as it would be to advise a minority
community not to call the fire department because their
current fire department responds in such racist ways. What
alternate solution could we possibly create that could respond
at one in the morning when a woman has a knife to her neck?
Who's going to investigate when the perpetrator says she
started it and he was acting in self defense? Who's going
to invest in the necessary equipment, training, and salaries
to respond to millions of these cases? And when the perpetrator
promises to stay away from the house, by what authority
are we going to stop him when he breaks the promise?
And if, for the
sake of argument, we were to create such a system, is there
any question that the current law enforcement system would
not sit idly by? They would, of course, immediately begin
to arrest the members of our alternative system the moment
we moved to restrict a perpetrator's freedom. So doesn't
that bring us inevitably right back to the confrontation
with the current justice system that we wanted to avoid
in the first place?
What then? Are
we going to make the millions of women who now call the
police to secure their safety give up their housing and
go into shelters? The kids too? And for how long? And let
the violent perpetrators run free? To find more victims?
And what about
justice? Do we say, oh well, she may have been beaten to
a pulp, but as long as she's safe, she doesn't need justice?
Do we say that first we must stop all justice system abuses
of male defendant's before we demand justice for women?
Or do we create an alternate justice system as well as an
alternate system of first response?
Or are we going
to prevent this violence from happening in the first place?
With education? And how many women are we willing to let
die before the prevention education sinks in? And since
most young boys turn to violence after growing up in violent
homes, isn't stopping the current violence against women
the first priority of any successful prevention program?
And doesn't that bring us right back to the original dilemma?
Who's going to step in and stop the current violence that's
ravaging millions of women's lives today? What good does
it do to tell kids not to play with matches if there's a
wildfire raging all around them and the firemen won't budge?
It doesn't take
but a few minutes thought to see that when it comes to intervening
in the rampant existing violence against women, the criminal
justice system as exclusively authorized and empowered by
the state is as pivotal and irreplaceable as the fire department
is to fighting fires. But it's worth doing the mental exercise
if only to beat down once and for all the temptation to
give up on dealing with the criminal justice system. It's
true the criminal justice system is permeated with abuses.
And it's true these abuses can easily endanger and re-victimize
victims, as well as victimize defendants. But this is all
the more reason we need to confront this system head on,
and to remake the current justice system into a system that
responds adequately, equitably, and even handedly.