The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act Challenges Double Punishment

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DVSJA 5-8-17 AP 1A recent report by the Prisoner Reentry Institute of John Jay College (PRI), “Women InJustice: Gender and the Pathway to Jail in New York City,”  is the latest study point to out that that physical and sexual trauma and abuse histories are a significant root cause for women and girls’ involvement in the criminal legal system.  Domestic violence robs victims of their self-esteem and self-determination.  Incarceration replicates this trauma, especially for women in the New York State prisons where there continues to be a dearth of  gender-sensitive, trauma-informed health care and programming to address women’s trauma histories, addiction, mental health and other issues related to intimate partner abuse.

The CA’s Women in Prison Project (WIPP) continues to spearhead efforts to secure passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) A.3110/S. 5116 by the New York State Legislature .  The DVSJA would reduce prison sentences and increased alternative-to-incarceration services for domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes related to their abuse.  While the DVSJA is gender-neutral, for women especially  passage of the DVSJA would address criminal prosecutions that result from two prevalent patterns:  women acting in self-defense against their abusers, and women who take part in a crime as an accomplice or at the command of their abusers to avoid injury or losing their lives., Roughly  360 survivors who are now in New York prisons could be eligible for re-sentencing under the law, and an estimated 480 defendants annually statewide could request alternate sentencing under the law.

What would the DVSJA do? The law would give judges the discretion to set an alternate sentence than required under current sentencing guidelines if the survivor-defendant can show they were  subjected to substantial physical, sexual, and psychological abuse; the abuse was a significant contributing factor to the offense; and a that a sentence under the standard sentencing guidelines would be unduly harsh. Incarcerated survivors serving sentences of eight years of more could also apply to the court for re-sentencing.

To date, WIPP and the Coalition for Women Prisoners (CWP), a statewide alliance of, have met with key elected officials, conducted community presentations, and have engaged media to educate the public about the critical need to pass the DVSJA. A recent  collaboration with PRI, featuring  “Strength of a Woman,” a CWP  film that chronicles the experience of three women survivor-defendants,  was followed by a powerful post-screening discussion which included, among others, the film’s subject, Sharon White-Harrigan,   and former State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, the charter Senate sponsor of the bill and its longtime champion,

On May 8, a steadfast brigade of CWP members and other supporters took their fight to pass the DVSJA to Albany, as part of a statewide day of legislative advocacy organized by the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NYSCADV). It was a day of excitement, determination, togetherness,  and a shared commitment to educate and urge support for a legislative agenda that powerfully, and indelibly, cuts a broad swath across families and communities.

To obtain updates about the DVSJA campaign, follow the CA on Facebook or go to www.correctionalassociation.org/domestic-violence-survivors-justice-act.  To learn more generally about the health and needs of women in the New York State prison system, see our five-year study of the women’s prisons entitled, Reproductive Injustice:  The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons.

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