This article was co-written by Jaya Vasandani, Associate Director of the Women in Prison Project Correctional Association of New York, and Jesenia Santana, Advocacy Services & Senior Policy Advisor at STEPS to End Family Violence.
Jenna’s Law DV Exception
New York has taken steps toward recognizing that mitigated sentencing should exist for survivor-defendants convicted of crimes directly related to abuse, but these efforts have fallen far short of the change that is needed. While the Sentencing Reform Act of 1998, known as Jenna’s Law, established a sentencing exception for DV survivors, the exception has not achieved its goal to provide more compassionate sentencing for survivor-defendants. The law did not sufficiently lower sentences and still mandates prison penalties, prohibiting judges from sentencing survivor-defendants to ATIs. The exception also excludes survivors convicted of crimes that occur as a result of an abuser’s violence but which were not committed against the abuser. In addition, the law has been woefully underused. In 2007, the NYS Sentencing Commission found that only one person was serving a sentence under the statute: a male survivor who was sentenced to more time than the minimum allowed under the general statute and who was denied parole twice. In 2009, the Commission found that no one was serving a sentence under the exception.
Women’s Pathways Into Crime
Most women’s pathways into the criminal justice system are linked to their histories of violence and trauma. In a report titled Pathways to, Conditions and Consequences of Incarceration for Women1, Dr. Rasheeda Manjoo highlights the strong correlation of violence against women as a central component of women’s incarceration globally. This holds true in New York. For example, the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67% of women incarcerated for killing an individual close to them in 2005 had been abused by the victim of their crime.2 Additionally, a 1999 study of women at NY’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility found that more than 90% of the women surveyed had suffered physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, more than 80% had been seriously physically or sexually abused as children and 75% had been severely abused by intimate partners during adulthood.3 While there is little doubt that incarcerated women have experienced domestic violence, incest, sexual assault and rape, there is a lack of focus on and response to these issues within the criminal justice system.
What does this mean for victims of domestic violence?
Survivors of domestic violence are frequently charged with a variety of crimes that are a result of self-defense, coercion, violence/threats of violence and coping. These crimes include assault or homicide against the abuser, crimes which the abuser forces the survivor to participate in, like being a getaway driver to a robbery or engaging in sex work, and economic crimes like shoplifting, because an abuser is controlling the survivor’s finances.
Instead of going to prison, survivors convicted of crimes that result from abuse could serve their sentences in alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs that are trauma-informed and suited to their specific needs. ATIs are far more effective than prison in allowing survivors to heal from abuse, stay connected to families, and contribute positively to the community. STEPS to End Family Violence4 is one such program.
Solution-oriented resources and services
Through three unique projects at STEPS, survivors charged with crimes related to their abuse can access resources and services, participate in counseling, and serve their sentence in the community. In STEPS’ programs, survivors can begin to heal from trauma while addressing the collateral issues associated with involvement in the criminal justice system. STEPS uses a harm reduction and relational theory approach, provides a safe space for survivors to engage in individual and group counseling, supports and advocates for survivors in criminal, housing and family court, and works to increase survivors’ safety, support their economic independence and strengthen their relationships with their children and families. ATIs are also less costly than prison. It costs upwards of $55,000 to incarcerate one adult per year in New York and only $11,000 for an ATI program.
Although ATI programs like STEPS have been proven to reduce recidivism, NY’s mandatory sentencing laws present an obstacle - judges are often unable to use these alternative sanctions. Instead, they may be required to dispense long prison sentences even if they believe that a lower sentence or diversion to an ATI program is the most appropriate way for a survivor-defendant to serve her sentence.
The Correctional Association of New York and STEPS to End Family Violence are part of a coalition of over 120 women’s groups, domestic violence groups, criminal justice organizations and crime victims groups promoting legislative proposals aimed at addressing these problems. We are always looking for allies in our work to restore humanity and justice to the way our state treats survivors caught in the criminal justice system
- U.N. General Assembly. Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, in accordance with General Assembly resolution 65/187. Pathways to, conditions and consequences of incarceration for women. Sixty-eighth session of the General Assembly, 21 August 2013.
- State of New York, Department of Correctional Services, “Female homicide commitments: 1986 vs. 2005” (July 2007).
- Browne, Miller and Maguin, “Prevalence and Severity of Lifetime Physical and Sexual Victimization Among Incarcerated Women,” International Journal of Law & Psychiatry 22(3-4) (1999).
- STEPS is the only ATI in the country specifically designed for survivor-defendants. STEPS’ Hidden Victims Project and the STARS Program (2 prostitution diversion projects connected with the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts in Queens and Midtown Community court) provide alternatives to incarceration for individuals charged with prostitution-related crimes.