Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: Economic, Public Health, and Community Solutions
By Leigh Goodmark | June 12, 2019
For the last thirty years, the criminal legal system has been the primary response to intimate partner violence (IPV) in the United States. But criminalization has failed to deter IPV. Instead, criminalization exacerbates some of the causes of IPV, and it can have serious unintended consequences for victims.
In my new book, Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, I argue for a shift in policy focus. Rather than continuing to put money, time, and effort into the criminal legal system, IPV policy should center economic, community, and public health solutions. Such solutions shift the focus of IPV policy from reaction to prevention. They also provide justice for people unwilling or unable to turn safely to state-based criminal punishment systems.
First, IPV strongly correlates with poverty. Lack of resources can trap people in abusive relationships. IPV policy should put resources directly into the hands of people subjected to abuse. Cash transfer programs, microfinance, and living wage work initiatives can all accomplish that goal.
Finding work for people who abuse should also be a priority. Under and unemployed men are more likely to be violent towards their partners. Employing men may do more to deter IPV than criminal punishment (particularly because a criminal record makes it more difficult to find work). Since 2002, for example, House of Ruth Maryland has partnered with community-based agencies to help participants in its abuser intervention program find work, recognizing that employment keeps participants engaged with the program and decreases lethality. This year, they will launch a supportive services model that provides employment services on site.
Providing safe, affordable housing also serves as a bulwark against IPV. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Domestic Violence Housing First Project tested this strategy and made finding permanent housing for their clients their first goal. They found that other issues could be addressed only after housing stability was ensured. The program also provided flexible financial assistance to participants, which they could use to cover transportation, childcare, education, and employment-related expenses. 18 months after entering the program, 96% of participants had maintained housing and 84% said that the program increased their safety. Despite serious challenges including unemployment, lack of language skills, past evictions, criminal histories, and substance abuse (in addition to IPV), 76% of participants only needed minimal services at the final follow up.
Public Health Solutions
Second, prevention is essential to ending IPV. Employing a public health framework prioritizes prevention over other goals. A public health framework suggests a number of possible avenues for addressing IPV.
On the individual level, IPV policy should support promising programs for people who abuse or who are likely to abuse. Exposure to trauma is highly correlated with perpetration of IPV; the more adverse experiences children have, the more likely they are to perpetrate. School-based programs have been successful in decreasing rates of violence among adolescents at risk of perpetration by confronting the experiences, beliefs, and attitudes that make IPV more likely. Outside of school-based programs, the Strength at Home Men’s Program significantly reduced physical and psychological violence among returning combat veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD and who had used violence against their partners.
Anti-violence advocates have been reluctant to focus on the trauma that people who use violence experienced, fearing that it could be seen as an excuse for their behavior. But such trauma is an explanation, not an excuse: it does not relieve those who use violence of accountability, but helps to address the causes of violence and enables those who use violence to understand and change destructive behavior.
Third, engaging communities must be a vital component of IPV policy. Most people subjected to abuse do not turn to police or state systems first, if they use those systems at all. They look to friends, family, and other community resources to help them stop the violence.
It should be a priority to ensure that anti-violence policy bolsters the efforts of these first responders, strengthens communities and equips them to offer support, and provides structures for finding justice within communities. Curricula designed to facilitate community responses to IPV and models like the Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) program provide frameworks for engaging individual community members in the process of keeping people subjected to abuse safe and holding those who do harm accountable. The CoSA model, for example, relies on the development of strong individual relationships between ex-offenders (called core members), individuals from the community, professionals and a coordinator to help the core member avoid situations that could lead to re-offending and to hold the core member accountable.
For those whose justice needs cannot be met through the criminal legal system, restorative justice holds promise. Restorative justice concentrates on harm, not crime, and asks three questions: What was the harm? What was the impact of that harm? What needs to be done to redress that harm? Restorative justice is not appropriate in every case—it requires buy in from those who are harmed and that those who have done harm be willing to accept responsibility—but it gives options to people who otherwise do not have a mechanism for seeking justice.
There are over 800,000 incidents of intimate partner violence each year. If we arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated every person who committed an offense, we would substantially increase mass incarceration. That’s not a tenable solution to a persistent problem. Shifting frameworks allows us to think beyond criminalization and focus our efforts on prevention rather than punishment, on meaningful accountability, and on changing the context in which violence flourishes.