Domestic abuse presents a deadly threat to millions of people across America. But as concerns about police misconduct grow, feminists are reconsidering the costs of criminalization.
On a Friday night in July, two police officers in Rollinsford, a small town in eastern New Hampshire, responded to a report of a domestic disturbance at the home of RJ and Sarah Letendre. RJ Letendre, who at the time worked as a police officer in the nearby city of Dover, told the responding officers that during a conversation about a divorce, she attacked him, scratching and biting him.
The officers arrested Sarah Letendre, a stay-at-home mother of two young children, and charged her with domestic violence simple assault. Then they took her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. In an affidavit, police said they “did not observe any obvious injuries on her,” though they noted that “she was complaining of pain in her left rib area.” Afterward, police dropped her off at her home, which she was not allowed to enter because of a no-contact order triggered by the assault charge. According to her sister Jessica Newman, Sarah Letendre was wearing a tank top, shorts, and hospital slippers when the police left her outside her house in the dark. When she went inside to get her purse so she could leave, Newman said, RJ Letendre called the police again. They pulled over Sarah Letendre as she was driving away, around 4:30 AM, and tried to arrest her. She fled.
The story she told about that night to her sister and in court documents was quite different from her husband’s. In a domestic-violence petition filed later, Sarah Letendre said that during the argument, RJ Letendre, a former mixed-martial arts fighter, had forced her to the ground, held her with a knee on her sternum, and elbowed her hard in the ribs. This wasn’t the first time he’d attacked her, she claimed. In other alleged incidents dating back to 2018, he picked her up by her neck, put her in a choke hold, and pushed her into a bathroom door. She said she found a tracker on her car and that he threatened to kick her out of the house and to take their children if she tried to leave him. “He threatens to use his status as a police officer to arrest me,” she wrote in her petition. “Recently those threats are more frequent.” (He also filed a domestic violence petition against her, claiming, “I had to physically restrain her until police arrived on scene.”)
Although Sarah Letendre was taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, her discharge papers list no concerns with her mental state. Instead, her diagnosis was broken bones: “Closed fracture of multiple ribs of left side.”
For the past four decades, a dominant project for American feminists has been getting the police and the legal system to respond seriously to the crisis of domestic violence. More than 10 million people in the US are abused by their partners each year. One in four women will be pushed, slapped, beaten, burned, strangled, or otherwise harmed by an intimate partner during her lifetime. Nearly half of the women who are murdered in the US each year are killed by a romantic partner. Until the 1970s, police and the legal system largely treated this kind of violence as a family issue best resolved quietly at home. As feminists worked to bring the problem into the public sphere, many advocates focused on toughening penalties for abusers and standardizing the way law enforcement responded to complaints. Jurisdictions around the country now have laws intended to ensure an aggressive law enforcement response, including laws that require police to make an arrest in response to a credible allegation and no-drop policies that force prosecutors to continue a case even without cooperation from witnesses.
Today the anti-violence movement is in the midst of a painful reckoning with the collateral damage of this approach. Stricter criminal penalties have protected some survivors, but they’ve also led to the arrest and prosecution of others and contributed to a ballooning prison population that is disproportionately made up of men and women of color. “Anti-violence programs have their hands deeply inside of carceral processes, which leads not only to the arrest of men but also of women,” said Beth Richie, an anti-violence activist during the movement’s early years who now directs the criminology, law, and justice department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At particular risk are those who don’t present as the perfect victim: They aren’t cooperative with the legal system, they have a criminal record or substance-use issues, or they fought back. In Sarah Letendre’s case, her arrest initially left her without custody of her children and homeless, though she has gained partial custody and, according to Newman, found an apartment. In September, the Merrimack County prosecutor dropped the felony assault charge against her but is still pursuing other criminal charges, including resisting arrest. The Dover Police Department said in August that it fired RJ Letendre, whose attorney did not return a request for comment, for “multiple violations of departmental policy.”
Some advocates credit improvements in the criminal-legal system for a sharp drop in domestic violence rates over the past three decades. But as Leigh Goodmark, who directs the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, notes in her book Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, that dip mirrors a decline in crime rates generally. In recent years, domestic violence rates have fallen more slowly than crime overall, while domestic homicides rose. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in improving the ways police, prosecutors, and judges respond to abuse, more than half of victims of nonfatal abuse never report it to the police. A 2015 survey found that survivors often feel dismissed or blamed by police and said they feared reprisal or consequences such as losing housing or custody of their children. Others simply don’t want their partner to be arrested. Calling the police sets in motion a process that victims have little control over. And although there is little recent data available, two studies in the 1990s indicated that police have their own domestic violence problems, with as many as 40 percent of officers’ families experiencing domestic violence, compared with 10 percent of families in the general population.
Conversations about what Nan Stoops, a 40-year veteran of anti-violence work, calls the “unholy alliance” between the anti-violence movement and criminal-legal system gained particular urgency this year, as the isolation provoked by Covid-19 intensified concerns about domestic violence and as the Black Lives Matter movement advanced discussion about police reform. “We are having really hard conversations about what this means for us and how it’s going to change our work,” said Stoops, who is a strategic adviser to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In June, domestic violence coalitions from more than 30 states released a remarkable letter accounting for the ways in which their movement invested in the criminal-legal system at the expense of Black and Indigenous communities and other people of color and calling for “divestment and reallocation” of resources.
Domestic abuse presents a deadly threat to millions of people across America, in part thanks to the nation’s glut of guns, and it’s often invoked to make the case for policing and prisons. But as concerns about police misconduct grow, feminist activists who have been building alternative systems for emergency intervention and longer-term accountability are finding new allies and new attention. These community-based projects are still embryonic, but they are beginning to answer the question, “If the police can’t keep everyone safe, what else can?”
As feminists launched public campaigns against battering in the early 1970s, they also established a community-based safety and support infrastructure for women fleeing abuse in the form of rape crisis centers and temporary shelters. Law enforcement began to play a larger role after lawsuits against police departments for failing to protect abused women resulted in new laws and practices standardizing their response. In 1981, Minneapolis pioneered a mandatory arrest policy in domestic abuse cases, and after early research linked the law to reduced recidivism, cities around the country adopted that approach. In 1984 a federal task force released a report cementing the notion of family violence as a criminal problem that could be addressed through arrest, prosecution, and prison time.
Thus began what longtime activist Mimi Kim has described as “the carceral creep.” Feminists were fighting for attention and resources at the same time that tough-on-crime politics came into vogue. “Because crime and criminal justice reform were sort of the only political game in town, they were the only way to get [funding],” said Donna Coker, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. What had been a grassroots movement morphed into a professionalized field that largely saw gender violence through a unifying any-woman lens. In reality, intimate partner violence is more common and usually more serious for low-income women, and low-income women of color bear an even greater risk.
Then came the 1994 crime bill, which dumped billions of dollars into a ballooning prison system and included the Violence Against Women Act, which Joe Biden, who championed the legislation, has described as his “proudest” accomplishment from his time in the Senate. VAWA committed significant federal resources to law enforcement, victim’s services, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and it helped to reframe gender violence as a civil rights issue and drew massive public attention to a crisis often hidden behind closed doors.
But some feminists, particularly women of color, were deeply skeptical of the marriage between the anti-violence movement and the criminal-legal system. At the time, Kim was working at the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco. “I recall someone telling us that VAWA passed—that we all needed to applaud. And I felt sick,” she wrote to me. “I understood that VAWA did help some of the immigrant women experiencing domestic violence…. But at what cost?”
VAWA directed the bulk of its funding toward criminal responses; as of 2013, only about 15 percent of the grant money allocated by VAWA was going to social services. In fiscal year 2017 the act’s two largest grant programs provided $266 million to the criminal-legal system but just $30 million to housing, writes Goodmark, “despite repeated studies showing that housing is the single greatest need identified by people subjected to abuse.”
Twenty-six years after VAWA’s passage, there is little consistent evidence of the effectiveness of criminalization. Although initial research indicated that mandatory arrest policies—now in effect in nearly half the states—reduced future violence, some follow-up studies found that arrests may increase recidivism. Studies on prison time and recidivism are similarly mixed. Meanwhile, there has been a marked increase in the rate of women arrested for intimate partner violence. The case of Marissa Alexander, a Black mother of three who faced 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to defend herself against her husband in 2010, sparked national organizing not just to free her but also to draw attention to the many other survivors facing similar prosecutions.
“Certainly if you arrest someone and hold them, they’re not committing violence against their partner during that time, but there’s no evidence that it has a deterrent effect once they’re released,” said Goodmark. Trauma and economic insecurity have been linked to intimate partner violence. Male unemployment is the “most important demographic risk factor” in intimate partner femicides, a 2003 study found. Prosecution and imprisonment don’t fix these factors and often aren’t what survivors want, either. The criminal-legal system generally doesn’t have an answer for those women or for those who can’t afford to leave. Nationally, domestic abuse is among the leading causes of homelessness for women.
Of all the cases that Laurie Schipper has been involved in during her nearly four-decade career, none haunt her like Ruthie’s. Schipper, the executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, met Ruthie in a parking lot in Iowa’s Story County after receiving a call from the woman’s landlady. There was very little of Ruthie’s body that wasn’t covered in bruises. Schipper spoke to Ruthie through a car window for hours and learned that Ruthie’s partner had been abusing her for years, leaving her with serious physical and psychological damage. Every time Schipper moved, Ruthie flinched.
Schipper felt paralyzed. Ruthie had alcohol and drug-use disorders. She didn’t want the police to get involved, and it was clear that the effects of her trauma were so immense that she wouldn’t be stable in a shelter. “I remember thinking in the parking lot that I had nothing to offer that woman,” Schipper told me. “Those most traumatized often have long-lasting, damaging effects from the violence that often don’t fit into our boxes of who’s appropriate for services. They are angry. They may have a violent record themselves. They may be using substance abuse to self-medicate.” Eventually she gave Ruthie her card and left.
Schipper didn’t hear from Ruthie for a few years. Then, during a meeting with a county sheriff, he opened a file and asked Schipper if she could identify the woman in a photo. It was Ruthie, lying on a morgue slab. Her partner had held her captive and battered her for 10 days. Nobody knew anything about her identity when her body was taken to the morgue, but Schipper’s card was in her pocket.
Ruthie’s case was one of many that sent Schipper in search of new ideas. In 2013 the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence began to pivot from the emergency shelter model; instead, the coalition prioritized securing immediate and long-term private housing for people fleeing harm, as well as financial assistance and the deployment of mobile outreach workers who met women wherever they were. Schipper also began to look for ways to help people who didn’t want the police involved in their cases.
What was happening in Iowa was part of a gradual shift among mainstream anti-violence programs. The groundwork for this turn was laid in large part by a group of feminists of color, including Kim, who in 2000 formed Incite! The organization seeded on-the-ground experiments in responses to violence that did not involve law enforcement. One of those projects, founded by Kim, was Creative Interventions, which generated a nearly 600-page tool kit for community-based violence interventions that did not rely on police, crisis centers, or social services.
Schipper used it to set up pilot projects around Iowa, working with organizations in communities of color and rural areas to offer alternatives to people who didn’t want police involvement in their cases. One of the partner organizations was Crisis Intervention Service, which operates in 15 counties in the state’s rural north. Mary Ingham, the group’s executive director, told me that for years she believed the key to ending abuse was getting law enforcement “on our side,” making more arrests and getting the cases into the courtroom. Instead she observed that mandatory arrest laws and other codified procedures often ended up limiting survivors’ options or discouraging them from seeking help in the first place. After the pilot started, one of its first referrals came from a police chief in a small town who’d been called by the neighbor of an undocumented immigrant couple. “He realized that the system wasn’t going to be able to keep the woman safe,” Ingham said.
Iowa’s statewide domestic violence coalition is one of a handful across the country that have started to reconsider the emphasis on tightening criminal penalties. Nationally, the trend within the domestic violence advocacy community has been “a shift not only to move away from criminal justice as a focus for activism, as a focus for policy reform, as a focus for collaboration, but…also a shift to invest in changing the social conditions that create and foster violence,” said Donna Coker. Now, said Kim, because of the uprising sparked by George Floyd’s killing, “there has been forward movement in work that has been glacial over the past 20 years.”
Looking back, Bonnie Hansen can see the red flags: the jealousy, the aggression. She met S at a social event in her apartment complex last year, a few months after she moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, from Chicago, where she’d spent her whole life. (Hansen asked me not to use his name.) She was 29 and wanted to do something new.
Things got worse this spring after the couple moved together to Boise. Hansen, a therapist, was pregnant. The coronavirus hit, and then S was out of work. Stuck at home, they fought about money. She asked him to go to counseling, which he did for a while but stopped after his therapist switched to sessions by video.
On May 19, when Hansen was five months pregnant, an argument about money escalated. She asked S to leave. Instead he charged at her, hit her in the face, pushed her to the ground, and began to strangle her. Then he took off in her car.
Hansen wasn’t sure she wanted to report the incident, but she wanted her car back, so she called police dispatch. In trying to explain what happened to her car, Hansen admitted there had been a fight. Soon two police officers showed up at her house. She recalled telling them that she didn’t want to press charges, that she just wanted S to be away from her for the night. They told her they would arrest him for felony assault.
According to Hansen, what happened next was a “nightmare.” She felt pressured and belittled by prosecutors, who served her with subpoenas, forcing her to testify against S. They sought a plea deal that would put him in prison for at least two years, though she felt strongly that incarceration would do little to change his behavior or give her a sense of closure. Because of an automatic no-contact order, she couldn’t speak with him about her pregnancy, which she ultimately decided to terminate. Unable to get an abortion in Idaho, she had to travel to Seattle for the procedure, alone. “I wish I could have talked to him about it,” she told me. “I had an idea of what my future might look like with this person, and I was just told to move on.” (S’s attorney declined to comment on the pending case.)
“Your office makes me feel even more powerless and unheard,” Hansen wrote to the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office in August. (A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office said she was unable to comment on pending litigation but sent a statement reading, in part, “Our primary missions as prosecutors are to help ensure public safety, to guide victims through the system and to prevent future crime by suggesting effective rehabilitation for the defendant. We take each of those goals very seriously.”) Hansen started taking medications for panic attacks. Convinced there had to be a better way to handle abuse cases, she began to research. “I became kind of obsessive,” she told me. When she read about an approach known as restorative justice, she felt immediately drawn to the concept. “Yes, yes, I need that,” she remembered thinking.
The term “restorative justice” generally refers to dialogue-based methods of addressing harm, in which a person who’s been hurt identifies avenues for accountability in pursuit of healing and lasting change. Some practices associated with restorative justice have roots in Indigenous traditions, including peacemaking circles. Another form is group conferencing, in which victim, offender, and members of their community agree to a plan for repairing harm. Using restorative justice for domestic violence cases has long been controversial among anti-violence advocates, in part because of fears that it places too much responsibility on victims. But that is slowly changing, as the limitations of the criminal-legal system become more apparent. In the United States many existing restorative justice processes applied in domestic violence cases take place within the criminal-legal system rather than as an alternative to it, operating in jails and prisons or serving as diversion programs. Some anti-violence advocates see this linkage as a limitation. “If advocates work with law enforcement, law enforcement invariably wins,” said Kim. Last year, she and attorney sujatha baliga developed a restorative justice pilot program in California’s Contra Costa County serving people who do not want law enforcement involved in their cases. For now, the pilot is working with only a handful of people, and the interventions are driven by their needs. “We’re trying to see what works, what doesn’t, what’s safe,” said baliga.
Advocates are also crafting non-police-intervention mechanisms for situations of imminent violence. Oakland recently established a nonpolice hotline for domestic violence. In Milwaukee and other cities, teams of local violence interrupters sometimes intervene in domestic violence cases. Mia Mingus, a founding member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, developed a tool called pod mapping to help people identify a safety network.
Even as mainstream domestic violence advocates have begun to consider alternatives to the criminal-legal system, others argue that law enforcement still has a role to play. “I am persuaded by people who say, ‘Who you going to call? Ghostbusters?’” said Caroline Bettinger-López, who served as the White House adviser on violence against women during the Obama administration. “We need to focus on ways in which we can reduce the police footprint in many domestic violence contexts, but we should not pretend [the police are] going to go away. For those survivors who seek to engage with the criminal-legal system, we should make an effort to improve that system and make it more responsive to their needs…and for those survivors who do not seek to engage, we need to create alternative pathways so that they can access safety.”
Restorative justice advocates are clear-eyed about what they don’t know. “It’s not like we’ve gotten a chance to do this properly resourced,” baliga said. While there is some data showing restorative justice to be effective in juvenile cases, there is very little recent research on its application to intimate partner violence, though a 2019 study comparing a traditional batterer intervention program to one involving elements of a restorative process found that the hybrid model significantly reduced new arrests.
As restorative justice becomes more popular, baliga worried that the practice could be implemented poorly. “If you do this wrong, you will get bad outcomes,” she said. Factors like mental illness and addiction need to be addressed, and forcing people to participate as a condition of a plea deal could undermine the process. She and other critics of the criminal-legal system that I spoke with emphasized that there is no alternative that, on its own, can paper over the deep social and economic fractures associated with abuse. “Will a survivor who participated in restorative justice be murdered? Absolutely, because we haven’t solved the root causes that underlie intimate partner violence,” baliga said. The challenge, then, for the anti-violence movement in disentangling itself from the criminal-legal system is to find ways of doing both. “We have to make sure that if someone is being hurt, that that changes and that she has opportunities to heal, her kids are safe, and there’s food and all of those things,” said the University of Illinois’s Beth Richie. “And we have to understand that the expression of violence is…an expression of something larger.”
In early September, Hansen was able to speak to S for the first time since he was arrested. “It felt so good to hear him take responsibility,” she said. “If I could have heard that four months ago—oh, my gosh—I wouldn’t have gone through such trauma.” Her friends have had a hard time understanding why she would want anything to do with him. “I understand that there are some victims who think, ‘Yeah, what I want to keep myself safe and to make this right is for this person to have the harshest punishment,’” she said. But she wanted something else. “Why can’t we say, ‘Let’s help this person who is violent. Let’s help this person not do this again’?” She added, “I do care that we change as a whole. We can’t just keep this going.”