By Chanda Daniels and Ina Kelleher
This month marks 28 years since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was signed into law. Included as part of then-Senator Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill, the President has since called the legislation a “mistake.” He continues to voice support for VAWA, which has been praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. The irony is that President Biden and other elected officials can’t seem to see how VAWA, like the Crime Bill, perpetuates the continued criminalization and incarceration of countless Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, many of whom are the very survivors it purports to serve.
Liz is a 41-year-old Latina violence survivor. In recent years, she faced an impossible choice when her husband became violent: protect herself and her children from harm or face arrest again. Liz was and still is traumatized from the last domestic violence call she made over two decades ago in 1998. During this time, she called the cops after a former partner harmed her. However, instead of arresting her former partner, the cops arrested her after seeing the marks she left on her husband while trying to defend herself. Arrests like this have become common due to VAWA’s mandatory arrest program, which requires police to make at least one arrest when answering a domestic violence call. In many cases, the police end up arresting the survivors who called for protection instead of the person who was abusing them.
One 2020 survey found 24% of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence say that they were consequently arrested or threatened with arrest. When faced with the decision to call the police this time around, Liz was scared to risk arrest again, but she was even more terrified of her husband hurting her children. In fear, she called 911. No survivor should have to be re-traumatized in this way when seeking help. It’s heartbreaking, it’s senseless, and it doesn’t put Liz and other women like her first. VAWA was created to solve gender-based violence, but the legislation drives billions of dollars into state law enforcement programs. By requiring police to make an arrest instead of attending to the needs and wants of the survivor, it ends up prioritizing the wrong thing.
Since 1995, $8 billion in VAWA grants have been awarded and used primarily to support law enforcement’s work to investigate incidents, move charges forward, and prosecute crimes. Between 1994 and 2013, the amount of grant funding allocated to the criminal legal system increased from 62 to 85 percent. The spending breakdown in the 2022 reauthorization of VAWA shows that the police are funded 30 times more than community-based organizations. That means only $5 million is going towards community-based solutions and a whopping $185 million is for law enforcement.
The latest version of the bill amends the language requiring arrests by awarding grants to police who “encourage arrests of domestic violence offenders.”
Survivors like Liz and others have voices and thoughts on how to best curb intimate partner violence – they are the leaders to whom we should listen. A 2015 survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) found that the majority of survivors did not call the police for help when being victimized. Previous experiences contacting law enforcement deterred more than 80 percent of survivors from reaching out to police when domestic violence occurred again. The expectation that survivors seek recourse from the police is particularly challenging for many Black and Brown survivors, who are often reluctant to ask for help due to a lack of confidence in the criminal legal system’s ability to protect them.
It’s past time for us to imagine other forms of justice for women that center the well-being and desires of survivors. The focus must shift from punishment to accountability, which can and should be survivor-centered. The way to solve gender-based violence is by addressing the root causes, which include childhood trauma, anxiety, emotional, and financial insecurity. Throwing abusers behind bars doesn’t end cycles of violence. We need to ensure the immediate safety of people at risk, but that can’t be to the detriment of already marginalized communities. The answer is fewer arrests and more investment in long-term community-led, survivor-centered solutions.
VAWA was enacted with the bold aspiration to support survivors and curb domestic violence, but it's misstepped in its reliance on law enforcement as the answer. It's time to reexamine VAWA's approach to violence – and this time, the legislation should put what survivors want first.
Chanda Daniels is the Director of Communications at Common Justice.
Ina Kelleher was an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at Common Justice