Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act: is there really reason to cheer?

Many U.S. citizens greeted yesterday’s reopening of the U.S. federal government with public cheers and private relief, and many also cheered the news that reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was part of the short-term funding plan. But is the Violence Against Women Act really doing what those who sincerely decry cis male violence against women want it to do?

To near-unanimous fanfare, the federal government re-opened for business yesterday, for “three weeks” according to the White House. According to McConnell spokespeople, within the short-term funding bill lies a line item to re-fund the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This legislation, signed into law in 1994 by Bill Clinton, directs millions of dollars into the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of domestic violence offenders.

It is an unassailable fact of life in the United States that many cis men routinely commit physical violence of all sorts against cis and trans women, particularly those women whom they know intimately. (The law applies regardless of the gender of the person who was abused.) In this country, nearly 20 people per minute are abused by a domestic partner, and the majority of the abuse is at the hands of cis men. Women of color are targeted much more frequently than white women: four in ten Black women will experience domestic partner violence and are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by men than white women. Native American women fare badly as well: 4 out of 5 Native American women have experienced violence, and rates of domestic violence against them are up to 10 times higher than against non-Native women.

Domestic violence was not always criminalized. In fact, for most of the recent and distant past, women could expect little in the way of help from the police or their community in any kind of acknowledgement that the perpetrator was in the wrong, much less justice from the legal system.

However, modern Americans have looked more and more frequently to the legal system, not to their communities, to address wrongs. In the case of domestic violence, it has long been the case for communities not to listen to women whose partners are violent… and so the seeming need for the “impartial” hand of the justice system was strengthened.

As a result, VAWA was and is generally seen as a victory for women against domestic violence. Seemingly, it marked, then and now, recognition by the federal government that cis men routinely perpetrate violence against women, and that stemming the tide of that violence via the legal system is a matter of grave national importance. More ominously, the law was definitely a victory for conservative law-and-order types. It was part of the Omnibus (Biden) crime bill, and at the time its chief sponsor bragged of “put[ting] another 100,000 cops on the street.”

In a recent interview with Jessa Crispin, Leigh Goodmark, Professor of Law and Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, points to several problems with VAWA as it stands today:

  • The vast majority (85%) of VAWA funding goes into the carceral system. (At the time of VAWA’s passage, 38% of funds went to social services.) This creates a focus on a (questionable) solution rather than on the causes of domestic violence, such as unemployment or past trauma, or noncarceral solutions such as job creation or parental support that might stem the tide of partner violence.
  • Even though the partner who was abused may not want to press charges, “no-drop” state laws make it possible for prosecutors to press forward with criminal charges against abusers. In many cases they subpoena the partner to testify and if the partner doesn’t appear, they are arrested.
  • Men who abuse are demonized under the law and in popular culture in general. Conversely, the women who are their targets are expected to be angelic; women who fight back against their partners meet with scorn, derision, and lack of support.
  • It is likely that those who commit domestic violence have histories of trauma. Imprisoning these people results in more trauma to them, and at the end of their incarceration they are returned home to their families with no therapy or support. An inevitable result: more domestic violence.
  • It is unclear whether the law has resulted in a drop in domestic violence. Crime rates in general have declined over the last 30 years. However, from 2000 to 2010, domestic violence crimes declined less rapidly than other forms of crime, suggesting that VAWA was not having its seemingly intended effect.

Goodmark, who has worked with families affected by domestic violence for 25 years, suggests that VAWA funding go instead to:

  • Job creation. Underemployed men commit more acts of domestic violence on average than do men with steady, well-paying jobs.
  • Resources for women who have been abused. Paying for shelters is just a start: helping women get on their feet economically helps the whole family.
  • Parental and community child-minding, to lighten the burden of childcare on stressed parents
  • Community- and survivor-led restorative justice programs, such as Baltimore’s Gather Together
  • Pilot therapy programs such as the Veterans Administration’s Strength at Home, which offers cognitive behavioral therapy for those affected by PTSD to help them avoid violent acts against themselves and their loved ones

There is good news: the most recent version of VAWA has some funding earmarked to the study of alternative measures, such as restorative justice, as a factor against recidivism. Also on the docket is S.171, which would require a trauma-informed response to the initial investigation of domestic violence crimes.

However, VAWA’s continued focus on funding the carceral state has devastating effects on communities of color. According to the FBI, Blacks represent 23% of all spouses and 35% of all partners arrested for partner aggression, resulting in 300,000 arrests per year for allegations of domestic violence. And the arrest of an African-American in this country leads to incarceration much more often than it does for a white person.

VAWA funding, as it largely stands now, is a tool to increase the power and reach of the carceral state. Whether or not it helps families work their way out of domestic violence patterns is much less clear.

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