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Point of View: Help domestic violence victims with real solutions

Leigh Goodmark
Leigh Goodmark

Domestic violence often becomes a flashpoint in conversations around criminal legal system reform. The debate over State Question 805, a ballot initiative designed to reduce Oklahoma’s use of extreme sentences for nonviolent offenders, is no different.

Opponents to SQ 805 have pointed to survivors of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence as the reason to reject the initiative, arguing it will only put them in harm’s way. But while the attention being paid to the needs of domestic violence survivors is certainly welcome, the assumptions of these opponents simply don’t square with the literature.

Prosecutors have argued that they need the ability to use past domestic violence convictions to enhance sentence lengths, because without long prison terms victims won’t be safe. But the research doesn’t support these claims. There is no evidence linking prosecution and incarceration to deterrence of repeat intimate partner violence. Longer sentences do not decrease recidivism either.

In fact, criminalization actually exacerbates some of the conditions associated with increased rates of intimate partner violence. Male under-and unemployment, for example, is highly correlated with perpetration of intimate partner violence. Having a criminal record is already a challenge for those convicted of intimate partner violence to find and keep work; being incarcerated for longer periods of time will only increase that obstacle. Experiencing trauma is also highly correlated with perpetrating intimate partner violence. And because prisons are violent spaces, those who are incarcerated are likely to witness or be victims of violence. Such experiences create trauma that goes untreated in prison and that people take with them back into their intimate relationships when released. Criminalization and incarceration are more likely to spur recidivist violence than to prevent it.

Criminalization also fails to meet the needs of many victims of violence. Only about half of intimate partner violence is reported to law enforcement. The criminal legal system is the last place that many victims of violence want to turn. For them, justice may not mean criminal punishment, but rather the resources they need to keep themselves and their children safe or a real opportunity to have the community call their partners to answer for their behavior and actively intervene to protect victims and hold those who use violence accountable on a daily basis. Providing these victims with alternatives rather than continuing to use resources to increase the reach of the criminal legal system is a much better use of scarce funds.

Criminalization fails to meaningfully intervene with those who use violence in ways that might change their behavior, making them less of a threat to their partners in the future. Such change is possible: programs like the Strength At Home Men’s Program have produced significant reductions in intimate partner violence among veterans returning from deployment. Putting resources into working to change those who use violence is money much better spent than warehousing those people in prison and releasing them the same, or worse, than when they entered the system.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Instead of doubling down on prison as the answer to domestic violence, Oklahoma could be a leader in developing alternatives to incarceration and justice responses that serve all of the needs of victims of violence. Opponents of reform frequently use victims of domestic violence as the face of their arguments, then abandon them when the fight is over. But if Oklahoma really wants to help these victims, providing alternatives to incarceration and interventions that might actually stop future violence is a much better way to demonstrate your commitment to their safety. SB 805 won’t hurt victims of violence — but it could help reduce recidivist violence and create opportunities to provide victims with meaningful accountability.

Goodmark is the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, where she directs the Gender Violence Clinic.

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