Olivia Wang advocates for women convicted of murdering their domestic batterers
On May 10, Women’s eNews, an independent global news service, that specializes in coverage of public policy on females, in a ceremony in New York, honored 21 women with leadership awards, including those who have put themselves at risk of physical harm in their struggle to bridge the gender gap.
One honoree, Olivia Wang, a co-founder of California’s Habeas Project, an innovative program that assists battered women who killed their abusers to challenge their convictions. Under Wang’s leadership, the organization has taken an innovative approach to rehabilitating the female victims of domestic violence who are themselves convicted of crimes.
For Wang, these women are “the forgotten population of domestic violence victims.”
During a recent interview, Wang said, “I hadn’t realized there was this whole population out there. I looked around at my colleagues working in the domestic violence field and realized that incarcerated domestic violence victims were a complete blind spot.”
Along with two non-profit organizations she works with, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a prisoners’ advocacy group, and Free Battered Women, a division of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Habeas Project is one of a handful of organizations nationwide that focus on incarcerated domestic violence victims.
In 2002, the California Legislature passed a law that allows some survivors of domestic violence with murder convictions to challenge the legality of their confinement through writs of habeas corpus. Under the new law, women and men whose trials began or who pled guilty before 1992 may file a petition on the basis that expert testimony of domestic violence was not brought up at trial, and that the lack of evidence prejudiced the ultimate outcome of their trials.
Habeas Project volunteers started filing writs of habeas corpus on behalf of certain convicted felons, and since 2002 the project has won the release of more than a dozen women from prison. Exact statistics about the number of battered women who are in California’s state prisons for killing their abusive partner are not currently available. However, there are more than 10,000 women in California’s prison system.
In September 2004, Wang and her organization scored another victory when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that allows for incarcerated battered women and men to further challenge their convictions. Under the new law, women and men charged with an attempted murder or a felony related to an abusive partner and convicted before August 29, 1996, can now challenge their convictions, if they can show proof of battery or domestic violence that would have affected the outcome of their trial. The previous law only pertained to pre-1992 convictions.
The new law was also expanded to include many classes of survivors previously excluded from redress. The revised statute includes relief for those coerced by their batterers into committing crimes—including murder and manslaughter—and, especially, others convicted of crimes where expert testimony on domestic violence was ruled inadmissible from their trial proceedings.
In addition to expanding the law to include more classes of domestic violence victims, the law also changed the terminology from “battered women’s syndrome” to “intimate partner battering and its effects,” a particularly proud achievement said Wang, who said the former term was “very gender specific”—given the reality that men are also abused—and loaded with the implication that battered victims have a mental illness.
For social services providers, California’s expansion of the law means that it will be easier to advocate for women coerced by their abusers into murdering, or, for example, those women incarcerated for writing fraudulent checks after suffering financial deprivation at the hands of their abusers. Wang carefully pointed out that she does not condone her clients’ criminal behavior, before explaining why some female victims commit crimes.
“We do not recognize the complexity of why people are in prison. On one level she broke a law writing a fraudulent check, but that is what she perceived as being her only way of survival, and when she is being confronted by all the abuse and having zero control over the finances in her family,” said Wang. “She is trying to survive in that moment and has to decide, in a sense, whether to kill or be killed.”
For Wang, however, this fight is about much more than just changing individual laws, it is about taking steps to change an entire system that relies on imprisonment as its main approach. The root of the problem, as Wang sees it, is “oppression, disenfranchisement and lack of educational opportunities,” and she views the current solution of imprisonment “as a cop-out.” In her effort to change the system, Wang is challenging the conventional wisdom that has put criminalizing batterers, not addressing behavior that leads to such abuse, at the center of its policy agenda.
When domestic violence came to the forefront of national attention and policy in the 1980s, shelters were seen as the best solution to the problem. Shelters, however, did not stop the violence, which precipitated the current “get tough” approach. A 1983 study by the Police Foundation in Minneapolis, funded by the National Institute of Justice, found arrest more effective than two non-arrest alternatives in reducing the likelihood of repeat violence. The study’s findings were widely publicized and provided the impetus for many police departments to establish pro-arrest policies in cases of domestic violence.
This is exactly the approach that Wang finds counterproductive.
“Now we have mandatory arrest laws, where they have to arrest the batterer and prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law,” she said. “It has all been centered on harsher and harsher punishments for men.”
She warned of the adverse effects of this hard-line approach.
“The system is going to be punitive to other people,” as well, Wang argued, an effect she has seen play out in her work.
“This unilateralist approach becomes even more problematic in situations where you can’t always determine who the primary aggressor is and with homosexual couples,” she said.
However, as Colleen Cary, the shelter manager at the Domestic Violence Center of Santa Clarita Valley outside Los Angeles pointed out, there is another side to criminalizing batterers and prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.
“Just last week I had a 25-year-old woman, who was the mother of four kids, who came to my group because her husband had attempted to kill her three times,” Cary recalled. “Having her husband behind bars allows her to send her kids to school everyday without fear that he will hurt them, as well as the opportunity to move away and change her name.”
While Cary agrees that there is room in the system for more therapeutic and holistic approaches toward abusers, she said she sees situations where it is critical to the safety of the victim that the abuser go to jail.
“The reality is that restraining orders don’t always work, and there aren’t strong-enough repercussions for breaking them,” she said.
Holly Maguigan, a professor of clinical law at New York University, and an expert on the criminal trials of battered women, agreed with Wang’s assessment that “we have put all of our eggs in the criminal justice basket,” but believes, “there are cases when a man should go to prison.”
Her larger point is about the misallocation of resources.
“For the $50,000 it costs to put a man in state prison, we could give that money to the woman and she could go relocate,” Maguigan argued.
Wang believes, more than anything, that the current model of punishment is hypocritical, particularly in how it impacts women who run afoul of the law as a result of their abuse. Going from an abusive relationship to a prison is like “going from one abusive relationship to the next.”
“When you think closely and critically about the dynamics of an abusive relationship, they resemble what women go through when they enter the prison system,” said Wang, who goes as far to say that “incarceration is violence against women.”
“Taking her kids away from her, locking her away, stripping away all elements of choice, what she eats, what information she can access, they lose their name, they are just given a number,” Wang continued. “The prison system is set up in such a way that dehumanizes women. That is the same thing as abuse between a husband and a wife,”
The question remains, though, where to draw the line with victims of domestic violence who have clearly broken the law. Should women who have been victims of domestic violence and who subsequently rob banks, sell drugs and steal cars all be acquitted and allowed to roam free? Maguigan believes “we shouldn’t draw the line on the basis of the charged crime.”
“I don’t think the system should draw the line for the crime for which she was convicted,” she argued. “You have to see if there is a significant nexus between the domestic violence and the crime and if there is then the judge should sentence her accordingly.”
Maguigan acknowledged, however, that “it is very difficult to figure out how to carve out a very special sentencing regime for these types of cases.”
A lot of the problem, as Maguigan sees it, “is mandatory sentencing regimes.”
Maguigan pointed out that the approach advocated by Wang “is coming into the center of the domestic violence movement People are planning meetings on mandatory arrest policies all over the country.”
Maguigan wants to carve out another approach, not just because she disagrees with criminalization on an ideological level, but because she doesn’t think that the current approach has been successful at decreasing domestic violence. Statistically, there are one million assaults on women every year, a number which has stayed relatively steady since the 1980s.
“If criminalization worked the way it said it did, why aren’t we seeing better results?” said Maguigan.
However, even given the fervent advocacy of women like Wang and Maguigan, changing state laws is an uphill battle. Currently, the government pours millions of dollars every year into mandatory criminal interventions. Both Wang and Maguigan agree that in order to implement the kind of change they are talking about, it has to be a part of a very major shift.
“It’s going to take time,” said Maguigan, it’s going to be a very long time, but I do see hopeful signs.”