Domestic Violence Survivors Who Commit Crimes: Exploring the Relationship Between Violence and the Criminal Justice System

Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual violence

In 2010, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling when her abusive husband approached her in a threatening way. She was still weak from having given birth several days previously, and her husband later admitted that he had intended to become violent with her. Living in Florida, the state of the Stand Your Ground law that would allow for the acquittal of George Zimmerman three years later, Alexander might have expected leniency because she had acted in self-defense. Instead, a judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

Across the country, domestic violence survivors whose abuse background leads them to commit crimes are subject to the attitudes of people around them toward said abuse. These attitudes are often a mixed bag, and they affect survivors’ treatment within the legal system every step of the way. Many people still find partner violence to be acceptable in certain situations, or think that certain types of violence are not “real” abuse. People may believe that a person defending themselves constitutes reciprocal violence. Often, people are also ignorant about why a survivor may not choose to leave a relationship and then place blame on the person for staying.

It often happens as well that people find a survivor unsympathetic due to biases against the survivor’s race, ethnicity, gender presentation, socioeconomic background, or sexual orientation. In Alexander’s case, it is likely, based on general inequalities in the treatment of black versus white people in the system, that her being black led to harsher sentencing than if she had been a white survivor. Even the survivor’s personal likeability and charm can factor into the support they receive from people in the justice system. Given all the varying attitudes that people hold, the courts – lawyers, judges, and jurors – often do not sufficiently consider a history of domestic violence when deciding on sentencing.

The most obvious type of case in which domestic violence influences the committal of a crime is one in which a survivor harms or kills their abusive partner. Sometimes this is an immediate act of self-defense, as with Alexander. Other times, a survivor may premeditate a killing, knowing that they will themselves be killed if they do not act.

Domestic violence can affect a person’s committal of a crime in other ways as well. Some people turn to theft, selling drugs or prostitution because they need to make money if they wish to leave – leaving not being an option for every survivor. Some are actually forced into prostitution by their abuser. Some survivors are convicted as an accomplice to a crime that their abuser committed in their presence or forced them to participate in.

In a 2005 study by Green, Miranda, Daroowalla & Siddique, it was found that 71% of women in California prisons had experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes. Setting aside the potential causation there, it is also worthwhile to reflect on what a history of domestic violence means for a person in prison.

Many practices in prison mirror the type of abuse that can happen in an intimate relationship. In Colorado, a practice was instituted for a time in 2010 in which female prisoners were routinely ordered to spread their labia as part of a search. After many of these prisoners filed grievances, gaining media attention, the ACLU wrote a cease-and-desist letter to prison officials, who then announced that they would stop the practice (Alan Prendergast, Denver Westword Blogs).

More accepted ways of treating prisoners still often involve abuse of power and extremely controlling actions by those in charge – being called degrading names, or being confined to solitary for slight infractions. Though these practices have been documented and though prison reform groups lobby against them, much of the public is supportive or at least uncritical of them, and so there is not enough outcry to effect change. Such actions go beyond the expected system of reward and punishment in prison. Far from rehabilitating prisoners, these practices can actually retraumatize them and make it more difficult for them to rebuild their lives afterward.

Prisoners often take action against unfair treatment by the legal and prison systems. They may file appeals in which they argue that the defense attorney did not provide adequate evidence of abuse during the trial. They may also ask for clemency from the state’s governor. They often write letters detailing abuses they have gone through in prison and seeking injunctions ordering these abuses to stop. They face steep odds, because their fight does not happen only in the context of their individual story. They are also battling the complex social systems that influence the interaction of their abuse, crimes, and punishment in the first place.

After George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Marissa Alexander and her supporters renewed their fight for her release under the Stand Your Ground law. You can read more about that fight here.

The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women works with survivors who are facing trial as well as ones who are already convicted and in prison. You can visit their site for more information and to find ways to help.

To read more, you can also visit Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance.

~ Amelie Booska, W.O.M.A.N., Inc. DVIRC Program Assistant & Social Media Volunteer

Green, B.L., Miranda, J., Daroowalla, A., & Siddique, J. (2005). Trauma exposure, mental health functioning and program needs of women in jail. Crime and Delinquency, 51, 133-151.


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