By Rena Abdusalam
WASHINGTON, DC – The Sentencing Project and the Survivors Justice Project released a report this past week containing guidance to states on producing a more trauma-informed direction to sentencing practices for survivors of domestic violence, family abuse and trafficking.
Incarcerated people, especially women, commonly report histories of abuse. Although their experiences can impact their involvement in crime, the accounts are typically not considered by courts, according to the report.
“Despite the criminal legal system’s purported goal of securing justice for crime victims, survivors of domestic violence and trafficking are instead often arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned,” Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project, and a co-author of Sentencing Reform for Criminalized Survivors, Liz Komar stated.
“Confronting the many drivers of criminalization is essential for justice. A fair and proportional criminal legal system should account for the multitude of factors that led to an offense, including abuse,” continued Komar.
The report emphasizes the passage of New York’s 2019 Domestic Violence Survivor Justice Act and other legislation for other states to follow.
The report noted New York’s act provided opportunities for survivors to be sentenced shorter and for those already imprisoned, it created an opportunity to be resentenced. With the enacted law, 35 women, four men, and one non-binary person have received retroactive sentencing relief, 80 percent of which identify as a person of color.
An expanding number of states are also considering similar bills, said the report. For instance, after passing unanimously in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the bipartisan Oklahoma Domestic Violence Survivorship Justice Act is headed for a state senate vote later this month.
Over 65 percent of incarcerated Oklahoma mothers reported abuse from their partners in the year prior to their incarceration, according to a 2014 study.
The bill would allow courts more discretion when sentencing survivors’ domestic abuse played a significant factor in the crime. It would also provide opportunities for the survivors to be resentenced.
Efforts for similar bills are ongoing in Louisiana, Oregon, Minnesota, and other states.
Domestic abuse and human trafficking can often steer survivors into the criminal legal system in many ways, according to the report, which states survivors often result in a loss of housing, income, savings, and other instability, which can push the individuals into committing crimes to meet these basic needs.
The report notes they can also be criminalized for defending themselves or others. Being coerced into crimes or substance abuse and arrest, which are considered to be coping mechanisms to trauma, are also possibilities.
The report also communicates that survivors have lesser opportunities for relief, if already criminalized.
“The need for sentencing reform for survivors is urgent, and part of a broader decarceration movement,” said Kate Mogulescu, Project Director for the Survivors Justice Project, and a co-author of the Criminalized Survivors report.
“While most women in prison report a history of abuse, survivor sentencing reform, like that being modeled here in New York, would benefit incarcerated abuse survivors of all genders across the country who are serving or facing extreme felony sentences,” added Mogulescu.
The report also highlights the experiences individuals who have applied for DVSJA relief in New York faced and individuals who would benefit from similar laws if passed in their states.
For example, notes the report, April Wilkens was led to incarceration and is serving a life sentence in Oklahoma for the murder of her abusive partner. Until she was able to access a gun and fire numerous times, Wilken’s significant other physically abused and sexually assaulted her on the night of his death.
The Oklahoma Domestic Violence Survivorship Justice Act would be able to give Wilkens an opportunity to a lower sentence if passed, said the report, available here.
Along with Komar and Mogulescu, Clarissa Gonzalez, J.D., Legal Fellow for the Survivors Justice Project; Elizabeth Isaacs, J.D., Teaching & Advocacy Fellow for the Survivors Justice Project; and Monica Szlekovics, Project Coordinator for the Survivors Justice Project, co-authored the Sentencing Reform for Criminalized Survivors report – with support from the Survivors Justice Project Advisory Group.