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A veteran legal researcher wants us to re-imagine how courts treat domestic violence cases

by Maher Sattar October 16, 2023

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on October 16, 2023. Subscribe here.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. Originally commemorated by a single day, the event has expanded into a full month as our understanding of the scope of the problem has grown.

In recent years, criminal justice reform has become a focus for advocates fighting domestic violence. Their criticism is two-fold: they say the criminal justice system can exacerbate abusers’ violence, and that it often locks up or mistreats survivors.

We spoke to Leigh Goodmark, the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. Her latest book, Imperfect Victims, puts forward a bold argument — that protecting domestic violence survivors requires dismantling our systems of incarceration. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a strong critic of the criminal justice system, saying that it routinely fails domestic violence survivors. Can you give some examples?

I wrote a whole book about it [laughs].

There is a case of a woman named Renata Singleton. Her boyfriend broke her cell phone. Somebody called the police. Police came, she wasn’t interested in pursuing charges. She had kids, she had a new job, she just didn’t have the time for it. 

And the district attorney’s office decided that it was so important that she testified, that not only did they subpoena her, but when she failed to respond to the subpoena, they asked for a warrant for her arrest. 

They kept her in jail for five days. Same jail as people who had committed all kinds of crimes. When she’s finally brought to court, she is in an orange jumpsuit shackled to other people. Her initial bond is $100,000. She’s a witness.

That’s quite a story. And you’re saying this is commonplace.

There are the classic kind of self-defense cases where women are coming into the system as defendants because people don’t believe their self-defense claims. People also become defendants in criminal cases for lots of reasons, because, for example, of the operation of mandatory arrest laws. 

Mandatory arrest laws require police to make an arrest anytime they have probable cause, but only in domestic violence cases. After the passage of mandatory arrest laws, arrest rates went up, not surprisingly, but they went up for women more than anyone else. Not because women had all of a sudden become more violent, but because of the way that police were implementing those laws. 

And this disproportionately impacts people of color. If you look at domestic violence arrests in Connecticut, for example, Black and Hispanic women make up 25 percent of the population, but 53 percent of those who are arrested for intimate partner violence. Wow.

You say you used to be a “carceral feminist”.

When I came out of law school in 1994, I had done a little bit of domestic violence work. I believed very strongly that people who were abusive towards their partners were monsters, that they could not be changed, and that the only thing that we should do was lock them up.

Then in 1995, I started actually representing clients who’d experienced intimate partner violence. And very quickly, I came to learn that that was not what my clients wanted. 

My clients didn’t think that their partners were monsters. My clients loved their partners, in some cases depended upon them, and in other cases did not think that intervention by the criminal legal system was going to help their partners in any real way, and wasn’t going to help them either.

You now describe yourself as an “abolition feminist”. What does that mean and what was that journey like?

Abolition feminism is a feminism that rejects the use of carceral punishment-based systems to achieve feminist goals.

In 2012, I published a book that basically says, well, the legal system is not working very well, but we could fix it. Then in 2018, I publish a book that says the legal system is not working. But even though I know that it’s not working, I still am not ready to go to abolition because I can’t envision what that looks like. 

Between 2018 and 2021, I started working on my third book. A few things had happened. Most notably, George Floyd’s murder. And then the publication of Mariame Kaba’s book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us. Something about Mariame saying, “we don’t have to know what it looks like yet on the other end, because abolition is about building as much as it is about tearing down”. Those were the two things that tipped me over from being very close to being an abolitionist to actually being an abolitionist.

What’s been the most difficult part of this journey? What do you have the hardest time adjusting to?

I think the hardest question that we get is ‘what do we do with the rapist’? What do we do with abusers who abuse over and over and over again. Because there is some feeling, in many of us, that those people need to be separated from society in some way, at least for some period of time. 

That’s the hardest question to answer. And it’s something that I think about a lot.

Where do you stand on that now?

I don’t have great answers for ‘what do we do?’ 

When we say people are recidivist, when they do it over and over again, what that tells us is that prison isn’t changing anything. It’s not making them less violent, it’s not making them less likely to be violent. It’s not addressing any of the correlates of that violence — such as economic stress, or the trauma that people experience from childhood on.

So a lot of it is prevention, a lot of it is community intervention, and then there’s a piece of it that I don’t know. But I don’t think that I’m the smartest person in the world. I think that if all of us, together, are thinking hard about what we do and how this looks, we’ll come up with a good solution.

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