THE BLOG
01/28/2015 07:43 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Criminalizing Victims: How the Punishment Economy Failed Marissa Alexander

On the day that domestic violence survivor Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot at her abusive estranged husband Rico Gray, he assaulted her and threatened to kill her. Despite the shot causing no injuries, Alexander was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Alexander successfully appealed her unjust conviction and last November accepted a plea deal for three years with credit for time served. Today, unless the presiding judge chooses to add an additional five years to her sentence, she will walk out of the Duval County jail, though she will be required to wear a surveillance monitor and be on probation for two years.

Initially, Alexander invoked Stand Your Ground as a defense -- the same defense that allowed George Zimmerman to go free after his murder of Trayvon Martin -- but in her case, the judge found that Stand Your Ground did not apply. Instead, the burden was placed on Alexander to prove that she acted in self-defense.

Despite suffering years of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, our justice system did not treat Marissa Alexander as someone who was simply defending herself, but rather as the wrongdoer. And her case is only one example of how the punishment economy created by our criminal justice system criminalizes victims.

In November 2012 in South Carolina, Whitlee Jones' boyfriend dragged her down the street by her hair and beat her. After another confrontation, she stabbed him in self-defense and he died. A judge initially found that Jones had the right to kill her attacker under South Carolina's version of Stand Your Ground, but prosecutors are fighting that decision, alleging that it does not apply in domestic violence cases where the two parties were housemates.

In October 2006 in Texas, Arlena Lindley's abusive partner murdered her son. She was later sentenced to 45 years in prison for failing to protect her son from her abusive partner. An investigation by Buzzfeed found 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent partners from hurting their children, despite the mothers being victims of domestic violence themselves.

In many cases, victims of rape have been punished for refusing to testify against their assailants. In August 2012, a woman brought charges against a 63-year-old Nebraska man for assaulting her when she was a child. When she later changed her mind and refused to testify in order to avoid embarrassing her family, the judge threatened her with a contempt charge and 90 days of jail time.

In each of these instances, we can certainly blame faulty laws, like Stand Your Ground, for their inadequacies, identify how to fix them, and make incremental changes. But for systemic change to occur, we need to move away from being a society where our first inclination is always to punish someone in order to solve a problem.

In a punishment economy, punitive solutions are applied to all social problems, particularly those involving low-income people of color, because as a whole, the government prioritizes funding for prisons and policing over social support mechanisms.

A 2011 report from the NAACP found that within the last two decades, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut $5 billion in mental health services, while spending more on prisons and jails.

A funding decision made by the state government in Mississippi offers an especially illuminating example of what operating in an economy that values punishment looks like: In February 2013, the state government had millions of dollars in federal child-care funding for low-income families, but instead of increasing services, they gave a $14.7 million contract to Xerox to develop a security system requiring mothers using child care vouchers to scan their fingerprints when they picked up their children.

In a punishment economy, we criminalize students who act out by placing them in juvenile detention centers, instead of increasing funding for restorative justice counselors in schools. We imprison people who suffer from substance abuse and mental health problems, instead of improving and expanding publicly funded treatment programs. And instead of increasing the capacity of domestic violence organizations to support victims, we penalize those victims for the decisions they make in order to survive.

People of color in particular are often the targets of this punishment economy.
A common denominator in many of the above cases is that the person accused is a black woman. The #BlackLivesMatter movement aims to draw attention to the multiple ways in which our nation's justice system fails to protect the lives of all black people.

The cases referenced above illustrate how the punishment economy hurts women, but its influence pervades our whole society and the end result is more people trapped in a cycle of mass criminalization and incarceration.

Now that Marissa Alexander has served time in prison, she is likely to face greater obstacles obtaining employment, housing, and health care. And when she returns home, she will have to pay $105 per week to the state in monitoring fees. The cost of punishment chases people long after they have served their time.

For change to happen, we must focus our resources on mechanisms of support. There is another way forward that does not involve punishment or jail. It's time to stop criminalizing victims and provide help instead.