by Leigh Goodmark, author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

If you had told me 25 years ago that I would eventually call myself a prison abolitionist, I would have called you crazy.

In 1995, I was a brand-new lawyer representing victims of domestic violence.  I was convinced that all people who used violence were monsters and that swift and harsh intervention by the criminal legal system was essential to stop that violence. 

My clients quickly taught me to look at domestic violence in a much more nuanced way.  They reminded me that they loved their partners, that they were co-parenting with their partners, that they didn’t always (or even often) benefit from the criminal legal system’s intervention. 

The more I represented people subjected to abuse in court, the more I came to doubt how effective those interventions were.

In 2018, I published a book called Decriminalizing Domestic Violence (a title certain to prompt responses ranging from curiosity to distress to outrage).  By then, I had amassed enough evidence to make a serious case that the criminal legal system wasn’t deterring or lowering rates of intimate partner violence. Instead, I found that it was exacerbating the conditions that led to intimate partner violence, and that it had serious unintended consequences for the people it was meant to benefit.  I had studied how that system harmed different groups of people, particularly people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, the partners of police officers, and women who fought back against their abusive partners.  I had thought about how the anti-violence movement’s choices about law and policy bolstered the system and how we could spend policy dollars differently. 

And yet, when I got to the end of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, I wavered.  Although I argued that “[o]ne could make a credible, even strong, case for decriminalizing intimate partner violence,” I concluded that “complete decriminalization of intimate partner violence is unlikely, and probably unwise,” citing the lack of support for such a move, the role that criminalization continues to play for some people subjected to abuse, and the symbolic value of the criminal law.  I went on to offer reforms to the carceral system that I argued could make it more just and less likely to create the kind of trauma that spurs intimate partner violence when incarcerated people return to their communities and relationships.

Over the last two years, I’ve talked about this book hundreds of times.  But the backdrop for that conversation has changed.  The continued police killings of Black people have brought #DefundthePolice and abolitionism to the fore in ways that are different for those of us not previously steeped in it.  Over those two years, I read.  I learned from people like Angela Davis, Beth Richie, Mariame Kaba, and Andrea Ritchie, who have been doing abolitionist feminist work for decades, as well as from newer voices I encountered on Twitter and in other spaces.  And I represented victims of violence imprisoned for acts related to their own abuse, which has profoundly changed my perspective.

I am proud of the book that I wrote.  Its thesis—that the criminal legal system is not an effective response to intimate partner violence—is sound, and I believe deeply in the alternatives that I explore.  But I would end the book very differently now.  I would argue that the criminal legal system serves no useful purpose in addressing intimate partner violence.  I would acknowledge that victims of violence continue to be invested in using that system—in part, because it is the only justice that we offer them.  I would contend that justice can be so much more than retribution and suggest that we explore what justice really means to people subjected to abuse so that we can deliver the justice that they need.  And I would conclude that whatever benefits one might argue result from criminal system intervention can be replicated and provided outside of that system, and that “reform” simply means allowing an unjust, ineffective, destructive system to continue to harm those it is meant to help. 

Violence will never solve the problem of violence.

The question frequently asked in response to calls to defund the police is “what about gender-based violence?”  Many people are recommending my book in response to that question, and I appreciate that.  But I also know that the book has been disappointing for those who came to abolitionism before I did because at the very end, it fails to follow through on the argument it has been making all along.

I hate that one part of my book does not reflect my commitment to non-carceral solutions to intimate partner violence and to abolition more generally.  But many, maybe most, of us didn’t start out as abolitionists.  We have the capacity to change how we see this problem, and, more broadly, how we see the world.  I’m excited about the conversations I’m having about the book now and hopeful that it can play a role in the change that is coming to our communities.