In recent years, lawmakers have talked a lot about criminal justice reform. They point out that decades into the so-called war on drugs and other tough-on-crime policies, our prisons are overcrowded and millions of lives are being wasted. As parents spend long sentences in prison for nonviolent crimes, their children grow up in broken, often impoverished homes, which makes it harder for them to grow up with happy, productive lives. It's time, the reformers say, for smarter policies that are more focused on crime prevention, and that give people convicted of crimes a chance to turn their lives around.
But there are certain types of crimes where it appears there is no political appetite for reform. Among these are crimes of domestic violence. Policies for dealing with domestic violence still largely revolve around punishment. It's not clear that this approach is having its intended effect.
Starting in the 1970s and '80s, lawmakers began orienting domestic violence policy toward intervention. They promoted protective orders and other tools for keeping alleged abusers away from their partners. At the same time, some communities instituted mandatory arrest policies for people accused of domestic violence, and penalties for people convicted of violent crimes tended to get more severe.
Proponents point to statistics showing a decrease in domestic violence, and say that the decline shows the tougher enforcement policies are working. But other researchers disagree, saying domestic violence rates have not fallen as much as other types of violent crimes. They argue that a law enforcement-focused, incarceration-based approach to domestic violence has led to the same problems the approach has produced in drug policy. It may even be making the problem worse.
Perhaps one day, lawmakers will reassess their policies toward domestic violence. In the meantime, people accused of domestic violence face the prospect of steep fines and long sentences behind bars. Everyone accused of a crime has the right to a defense, and it's important for people accused of violent crimes to seek out help from a skilled criminal defense lawyer.