Domestic Violence and The Criminal Justice System: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution, or Both?

We recently posted on CFCC’s Facebook page about a Topeka, Kansas, City Council’s decision to decriminalize domestic violence under city law. Although the state of Kansas still has a domestic violence law on the books, police and prosecutors had stopped enforcing the law for budgetary reasons, except for felony domestic violence cases.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed on October 20th (also posted on CFCC’s Facebook page), our colleague, Professor Leigh Goodmark, director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Family Law Clinic and an expert on domestic violence law and practice, writes that, while the criminal justice system meets the needs of some women, there is often a high price to pay for such protection:

Studies suggest that relatively few women report domestic violence to police; that most of those arrested for domestic violence are not convicted; and that when abusers are convicted, jail time is rare and minimal…. The criminal justice system undoubtedly meets the needs of some women; successful prosecutions do happen. Some abusers are sent to jail, and some stop their abuse, particularly when they are closely monitored following their release. But for women, the costs of engagement with the criminal justice system can be high: exposure to increased danger at the hands of abusers and, more problematic, the potential for violence from the state.

Professor Goodmark acknowledges that the message sent by Topeka’s action is a dangerous one that is reflected in many jurisdictions around the country. She believes that communities will have to look beyond the criminal system to really protect victims, using community accountability projects and other non-legal initiatives to raise awareness, change social norms, and increase the level and quality of response to the issue.

While we at CFCC believe that community accountability to victims of domestic violence is an essential component of a comprehensive approach to this problem, we feel that the criminal justice system, nevertheless, plays an important role. Criminal justice system reform, including long-term case monitoring, sensitivity training of judicial actors, integration of services to treat non-legal issues, and use of problem-solving courts are all examples of how to make the criminal justice system more responsive to domestic violence victims.

It is clear that Topeka’s action was a dangerous and potentially devastating step in the wrong direction – a case where politics and budget concerns left vulnerable women and families in danger. We at CFCC are encouraged by the fact that the state prosecutor has vowed to resume prosecutions after the public outcry, but we remain concerned that city law continues to ignore domestic violence victims. What, if anything, does Topeka’s experience teach us about domestic violence law and practice around the country? Is the criminal justice system failing victims? Should a reformed, strengthened system be a central part of the solution, or should it be secondary to community-based responses and initiatives? Let us know what you think.

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