More Incarceration Is Never the Answer, Not Even in Cases of Domestic Violence

Last month, KVOA Channel 4 (Tucson’s NBC affiliate) aired a story that discussed important issues related to the criminal punishment system, violence against women, and our role as a community. The issues brought to light concerns of safety and relationships, to which KVOA responded by asking: Do Arizona legislators need to enact harsher sentencing guidelines in cases of domestic violence?

Frankly, the question was off base, because—as the public is beginning to realize—more incarceration is never the answer.

Neither the criminalization of behaviors nor the incarceration that follows has ever solved social issues. In cases of domestic violence, studies have shown that people who commit such harm and are then sentenced to prison end up continuing to commit domestic violence at higher rates than those who go into intervention programs. Why? Because prisons don’t address the underlying causes of domestic violence. Instead, they reinforce that using power and control works.

Harsher sentencing and a more punitive criminal code won’t help rid us of domestic violence.

One in four women and one in seven men have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. For many survivors, calling the police can place them in greater danger, whether it be from the increased aggression by the person committing the act of violence, or because of systematic racism. A one-size-fits-all approach does not address the needs of all survivors, and our solutions must take into consideration the ways in which survivors’ experiences with the criminal justice system are often uneven.

The underlying phenomenon of abuse-to-criminalization is remarkably commonplace. Almost 80 percent of women who are currently in federal and state prisons were victims of physical or sexual abuse before their incarceration. Simply enacting harsher sentencing guidelines within our criminal code will not solve the problem.

Furthermore, incarceration comes with an expensive price tag. While the cost of prisons has continued to increase to over a billion dollars a year over the last six years, the availability of intervention programs, as well as economic supports, has remained stagnant.

So, how do we solve the problem of domestic violence? There is no single answer. But why don’t we start by listening to women when they say they have been victimized? Let’s build true structures of accountability for transformation, including community-based interventions and offender treatment—both of which show higher success compared to incarceration.

No one should be harmed by a partner or family member. But harsher sentencing and a more punitive criminal code won’t help rid us of domestic violence.

What sorts of effective treatment for domestic violence have you or your family experienced? Survivors, their advocates, and AFSC-Arizona want to know. Please tell us in the comments section below.

By Becca Fealk, AFSC-AZ Program Coordinator, with assisted research from the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

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