CRIME

Should Domestic Violence Victims Go To Prison For Killing Their Abusers?

A progressive new bill in New York would give judges greater discretion when answering that question.

05/25/2016 07:30 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Melissa Jeltsen/The Huffington Post
"If your goal is to rehabilitate and rebuild, incarceration is not the answer," says LadyKathryn Williams-Julien, pictured.

NEW YORK -- LadyKathryn Williams-Julien's first childhood memory is of her father punching her mother in the face. She was 6. Her mother fell to the ground, where Williams-Julien was already cowering. They were eye-to-eye, mother and child, both trembling with fear.

"Her whole face was covered with blood," she said quietly, sitting at the kitchen table in her apartment in the Bronx. "I think even if I got Alzheimer’s and lost my mind, I would never forget that image."

Years later, when Williams-Julien had a husband of her own, she didn’t fault him for hitting her. It's what she knew. For two decades, she said, her husband beat and abused her. She grew accustomed to living with a perpetual black eye. Then, one September night in 1997, she said, he wrapped his hands around her neck and did not let go. She knew he was going to strangle her to death.

"Here’s a man I’ve known all my life and I saw a complete stranger," Williams-Julien said. "This time something said, you are in a lot of danger here, you better fight back."

She reached for a knife and stabbed her husband once, then fled the apartment. When the police arrived, she confessed and they arrested her.

"She was across the street, sitting on a stoop, crying like a baby," Eric Reynolds, a retired New York City Police Department detective, told The Huffington Post. "Her only concern was him."

Her husband died later that night, and Williams-Julien was charged with murder. She was 36 and had no prior criminal record. If convicted, she faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life. 

Eventually, prosecutors reduced the charge to manslaughter in the second degree, which allowed her to narrowly escape a mandatory prison sentence. She pleaded guilty and served five years of probation instead. 

But Williams-Julien never forgot just how close she came to a life behind bars. Other domestic violence survivors, she knew, were not so lucky. They were sent to prison for decades.

It was up to her, she decided, to try to change that.

Since 2011, she's been actively lobbying the New York state legislature to pass a bill that gives judges greater discretion when sentencing domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes directly related to their abuse. 

Her efforts paid off in early May, when the New York state assembly passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, or DVSJA for short. The bill, sponsored by New York state Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, both Democrats, is now awaiting a vote in the state Senate codes committee. 

Under the legislation, judges could consider the role of domestic abuse in a case during sentencing, and bypass mandatory minimums set by the state. They could opt to give survivors shorter sentences, or let them avoid prison altogether by sentencing them to alternative programs.

"This law unties judges’ hands so they can consider the impact of abuse at sentencing," said Gail Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York. "Women who have acted to save their lives should not be punished by long prison sentences."

To be eligible for alternative sentencing, the survivor needs to pass a three-part test. She needs to be a victim of domestic violence at the time of the offense; the abuse has to be a "significant contributing factor" in the crime; and the judge has to find that sentencing the survivor under the current sentencing guidelines would be "unduly harsh."

Women who have acted to save their lives should not be punished by long prison sentences. Gail Smith, Correctional Association of New York

Eligible domestic violence survivors who are currently incarcerated could apply for resentencing, but they'd have to provide corroborating evidence, such as hospital records or police reports, to back up their claim that they were being abused at the time of the crime. For women who have been incarcerated for a number of years, gathering acceptable documentation may be difficult.

Hassell-Thompson estimated that around 100 incarcerated women could qualify for resentencing under the bill, many of whom were convicted in the 1970s and '80s when little was known about domestic violence. 

"This is not a get-out-of-jail free card," she said, "but I think if we are to be truly enlightened, women who have been in prison for long periods of time should have an opportunity to have their sentences looked at again."

Survivors who were forced into criminal activity by abusive partners could also be eligible for alternative sentencing under the legislation. Advocates stress that abusers often use violence to coerce survivors into committing crimes like robbery or drug trafficking.

"A lot of survivors are forced by their abusers to make really hard decisions, like whether or not they want to participate in their abusers' criminal activity or keep themselves and their children safe," said Saima Anjam, director of public policy at the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It can literally be a life or death decision."

Supporters of alternative-to-incarceration programs say they are not only more humane than prison, but also a lot cheaper.

It costs more than $55,000 a year to incarcerate an adult in New York. In comparison, a person can receive services at an alternative-to-incarceration program for just $11,000 a year, according to a 2010 report by a coalition of service organizations. 

Anjam said that domestic violence survivors are ideal candidates for alternative sentencing, since they often have no prior criminal records and pose a low threat to public safety. 

"They need a little bit of compassion and assistance," she said.

It's impossible to know exactly how many domestic violence survivors are incarcerated for crimes directly related to their abuse, as no government agency gathers this data.

"I’ve been trying to track down these numbers for over 20 years," said Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. "It’s really hard to track this. Who gets to decide who is a victim of battering? Or if they were acting to defend themselves? That information is just not kept."

However, there is some state-level data. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, for example, found that 67 percent of women sent to prison in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by that person

Think about how different this would be if we spent the money to help these women escape abuse instead of locking them up. Rene Renick, National Network To End Domestic Violence

Anecdotally, advocates say the problem is endemic across the country.

"If you talk to women in any prison, you will find a huge percentage of them are there for crimes related to their abuse," said Rene Renick, vice president of programs and emerging issues at National Network To End Domestic Violence. "Think about how different this would be if we spent the money to help these women escape abuse instead of locking them up."

In an interview with HuffPost, Joan Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School, called New York's proposed legislation "cutting edge" and said she did not know of similar bills. 

Problems can still arise when judges exercise discretion poorly, she cautioned, especially if they don't understand how domestic violence and trauma affect victims and their behaviors.

"But this is still better than nothing, because it does invite judges to weigh the fairness of the sentence, and to consider the circumstances more broadly," Meier added. "Hopefully, reasonable and thoughtful judges will make use of it."  

Williams-Julien believes other women deserve to have the opportunity she did -- a second chance for a life free of violence.

"Power and control is the core of domestic violence," she said. "Prisons are governed by that. If your goal is to rehabilitate and rebuild, incarceration is not the answer."

The whole point of the DVSJA, she said, is to avoid re-victimizing the victim.

"It’s not about, 'you committed a crime, you need to be punished,'" Williams-Julien said. "He or she has already been punished. What they need to be is taken into the right environment to get them the help they need to begin to rebuild as a person."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

This story has been updated to include comment from Hassell-Thompson.

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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