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Jim Kenyon: Asking a Tough Question About Domestic Violence

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 10/29/2016 11:55:02 PM
Modified: 11/2/2016 11:20:39 AM

During the last 25 years or so, the federal government and most states have cracked down on domestic violence. Offenders are increasingly held accountable (unless they happen to play in the NFL).

On Wednesday evening, Vermont Law School will offer its annual Sterry R. Waterman Lecture, named for the late federal judge from St. Johnsbury. The title of this year’s lecture: “Should Domestic Violence Be Decriminalized?”

That’s not a misprint.

The free event, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at VLS’ Chase Community Center, will explore whether locking up offenders and saddling them with criminal records is always the best approach to domestic violence. Or always in the best interests of victims.

VLS Communications Director Maryellen Apelquist barely had time to hit the send button on the electronic news release announcing the lecture when she heard from an alum who couldn’t believe what she was reading.

Apparently, any talk of reforming the way the criminal justice system deals with domestic violence is a nonstarter with lots of people. That’s understandable. Often it’s a heinous crime, and one that cuts across all socio-economic classes.

However, “If there is any place that should tolerate novel ideas, it’s an academic institution in the United States of America,” said Bobby Sand, a VLS associate professor who deserves much of the credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — for arranging the lecture.

Giving the lecture will be Leigh Goodmark, a tenured professor at the University of Maryland’s law school and author of the 2011 book, A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System. Sand met Goodmark in 2014 when they both were speaking at a University of Vermont international conference on restorative justice.

With a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a law degree from Stanford, Goodmark could easily be written off as an Ivory Tower academic not grounded in the real world.

Big mistake.

Goodmark, 47, has represented more than 1,000 victims of domestic violence in civil matters during her 20-year law career. “My clients are the ones who are saying the criminal justice system doesn’t work for them,” Goodmark told me over the phone last week.

“Women want the violence to stop, but they don’t necessarily want to set the whole criminal justice system in motion. You can’t stop the criminal justice ball once it starts rolling.”

At Maryland, Goodmark launched the Gender Violence Clinic that has law students working with low-income people who have been victims of violence and abuse.

For decades, society tended to look the other way when brought face to face with women who had suffered bruises and black eyes, or much worse, at the hands of their male partners. In 1994, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act to step up the arrests and prosecutions of batterers. States toughened their laws too.

Today, when cops respond to a domestic disturbance call, it invariably means that someone is going to leave in the back of a cruiser. Along with this “mandatory arrest” approach, states have adopted “no-drop” policies regarding the prosecution of domestic violence cases.

Victims can be subpoenaed and forced to testify. If they refuse, they can be fined, or even jailed.

“I’m looking at it from the victim’s perspective,” Goodmark said. “Are there better ways to handle this?”

When a husband or boyfriend is put behind bars, there often can be immediate ramifications for the victim and her children. Loss of a paycheck comes to mind.

“People who break the law should be held accountable and should have to make amends,” said Sand, who spent 15 years as Windsor County’s state’s attorney. “There are a lot of different ways for that to happen.”

It doesn’t have to lead to jail or a criminal record, which can decrease an offender’s chances of finding a decent job and supporting a family.

And for victims, incarceration tends to be temporary solution. Roughly 95 percent of all offenders are eventually released — often more broken and angry than when they entered.

Restorative justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the larger community, is an alternative.

Goodmark and Sand aren’t suggesting that offenders be given a free pass. “Decriminalization is different than legalization,” Goodmark said.

I looked at Vermont’s 2014 incarceration figures, the most recent available. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s prison population — 370 offenders — were serving time for domestic abuse. Their offenses ranged from misdemeanor stalking to aggravated domestic assault.

Nationally, criminal justice reform is getting a lot of attention. Since 1980, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled, to 2.2 million.

The feds and some states, including Vermont, have reduced the number of inmates, largely by focusing on nonviolent offenders, particularly those convicted on drug charges.

But the low-hanging fruit has been picked. If we’re serious about reducing our reliance on prisons, offenders doing time for violent crime, including domestic abuse, must be in play. “We’re not going to make any kind of dent without doing that,” Goodmark said.

In recent days, Goodmark has responded to some of her critics on Twitter. “I know there are (VLS) alums who are upset,” she said. “People seem to think I’m saying that domestic violence is OK. I’m not saying it’s OK.”

She goes back to the title of her lecture: “Should Domestic Violence Be Decriminalized?”

“Everyone ignores the question mark,” she said. And the current approach poses questions of its own.




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