N. Jerin Arifa
National NOW Board of Directors
National NOW Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
NOW – NYS Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
National Organization for Women (NOW)
N.Y. Bill May Shorten Sentences for Abused Killers
By Krystie Lee Yandoli
Friday, June 17, 2011
New York lawmakers proposed a bill last week to give judges sentencing leeway for survivors of domestic violence whose crimes were driven by what they suffered. If it passes it will be the first sentencing law of its kind in the country.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Kim Dadou, a 46-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., was sentenced to 17 years of jail in December 2001 for murder in the second degree and manslaughter in the first degree.
Without a prior criminal record, Dadou spent 10 years in prison, during which she was denied parole five times. According to the judicial and court systems, Dadou was a criminal. She was eventually released for good behavior seven years before her sentencing was completed.
The fact that she endured domestic violence for more than five years remained absent from her case.
"The judge said I didn't fit the description of a battered woman because I had a career, cars and money in the bank," said Dadou in a phone conference early last week, organized by the Women in Prison Project. "All of the police reports involving domestic abuse, hospital records of my resulting injuries and pictures of bruises and abrasions didn't matter at all."
These pieces of evidence may not have made a difference in the courtroom, but Dadou said they played a role in her decision to kill her longtime abusive boyfriend.
New York State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry introduced the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act on June 7 at an Albany press conference. Its main objective is to change the way the court system handles sentencing for people like Dadou, who commit crimes they say are directly related to their abuse.
A National First
No other state has passed this type of sentencing law, though aspects of reform have been achieved for survivors of domestic violence in other states, with California on the forefront.
Abused women on trial there for killing a domestic partner have been allowed since 1992 to present expert testimony about battery and its effects during the trial, for leniency consideration. California in 2004 also began allowing an incarcerated battered woman who was not allowed to present testimony on the effects of battery in her initial trial to petition for a retrial and bring in the evidence that was banned.
New York state also allows testimony on battery, but only in certain legal circumstances.
However, in 1998, New York state passed a general sentencing law that stiffened penalties for first-time violent felonies. The law included an exception for a narrow pool of domestic violence survivors who committed crimes directly against their abusers. But that element of the law has almost never been applied.
This 1998 reform failed survivor-defendants for a variety of reasons: it did not give judges the opportunity to divert survivors to alternative to incarceration programs as it allowed only mandatory prison sentences and it excluded other women who are convicted of crimes such as robberies and burglaries.
The new bill, if it becomes law, would provide judges with more sentencing latitude for survivors of domestic violence. They would be able to shorten sentences and in some cases replace prison terms with community-based alternatives to incarceration. One such program, STEPS to End Family Violence, works closely with the courts and the client's attorney to design an appropriate treatment plan and accompany the clients to court, monitor their progress and provide compliance reports as necessary.
The bill would allow survivors who are currently imprisoned to apply to the courts for resentencing.
Murder Victims Often Abusers
The Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York reports between 90 and 100 cases a year in the state of women incarcerated for crimes against their abusers. Ninety-three percent of women convicted of killing their sexual intimates, legal husbands or other partners had been physically or sexually abused by this same person, according to a 1999 study by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. This indicates the vast majority of incarcerated women for manslaughter or murder are survivors of domestic violence.
Jesenia Tana, legal service coordinator for the Women in Prison Project, based in New York City, said abuse can be involved in a range of crimes committed by women, from homicide to shoplifting that is coerced by male partners.
"We have clients who use drugs as a coping mechanism to try to deal with the abuse they're experiencing at home and women who assault as self-defense and are charged with the crimes," Tana said in a phone interview. "The bill provides discretion for judges to lower sentencing and the ability to aid women who are currently incarcerated."
The DV Survivors Justice Act is strictly a sentencing bill and does not address any other process within the criminal justice system.
The bill was announced in conjunction with a report co-authored by the Women in Prison Project and The Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School. In addition to recommending sentencing reform, the report provides stories of incarcerated women and research about the effects of survivors' imprisonment.
An opponent of the bill, Derek P. Champagne, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, was quoted by The New York Law Journal saying that "the law needs to focus on the abuser so it doesn't reach the point where a woman has to take it into her own hands." Champagne also explained in the article that prosecutors are "wary of sentencing reforms" because the focus should be on stopping the abuse from the get-go.
For Dadou, sentencing reform will help, but not necessary heal.
"I have been victimized throughout this entire process," she said in the phone conference. "I was victimized by my abuser, the court system, the prison system and even in parole. You've never paid your penance as a survivor because of the continuous victimization. My slate will never be wiped clean."