Stop Treating Domestic Violence Differently From Other Crimes

The criminal justice system isn’t preventing intimate partner violence. It might be making it worse.

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By Leigh Goodmark

Ms. Goodmark is a professor and an anti-violence activist. 
July 23, 2019

All of a sudden, it seems like criminal justice reform is on everyone’s policy agenda. Politicians across the political spectrum in the United States are finally thinking about policies to reverse the decades-long expansion of the criminal system, and the mass incarceration that has resulted.

But legislators have been doubling down on the system when it comes to domestic violence. Concerns about intimate partner violence threatened the campaign for pretrial bail and discovery reform in New York State. Iowa abandoned some mandatory minimum sentences in 2016, but created new ones for intimate partner violence. Various federal reform proposals would have decreased mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, but increased them for crimes of domestic violence.

The implication is obvious: Crimes of violence, and particularly domestic violence, should be exempt from criminal justice reform — and may even merit harsher treatment than they’re currently subject to.

These efforts are misguided. The effectiveness of the criminal legal response to domestic violence is a sensitive subject. Questioning it is a harder sell politically than reconsidering our responses to drug or property crimes. But intimate partner violence should be included in criminal justice reforms. This is not an argument for treating incidents of domestic violence differently than other crimes; rather, it’s an argument to stop treating them differently.

Assaults and threats of physical violence against intimate partners have been illegal for centuries. The Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed wife abuse in 1641; by the late 1800s, a number of states had criminalized violence against a spouse. But by the second half of the 20th century, those laws were rarely enforced. Police made few arrests; prosecutors rarely brought charges. To be clear: This was a bad state of affairs.

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