crime victim fund application

Economic justice for domestic abuse survivors shouldn’t strengthen mass incarceration

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

For about a year, I volunteered at a domestic violence hotline. Every other Saturday, I helped survivors of intimate partner violence access emergency housing, lock changes, counseling, and civil protection orders. Like many advocates against gender-based violence, my motivations were grounded in my own experience of violence and painful neglect from my school. I hoped to use activism to find closure and to move on with my life.

But, as I worked more hours at the hotline, I came to realize our advocacy efforts were stunted and disastrously linked with carceral politics; we could not hope to mitigate the devastating impacts of the criminal justice system on the communities we served if our advocacy strengthened components of mass incarceration.

For instance, as private donations and taxpayer dollars for direct services have dried up in an era of political austerity, domestic violence advocates have been forced to rely on a noxious funding stream known as crime victims compensation, in which victims are able to apply for reimbursement for expenses incurred as a result of the crime. Although this aim seems reasonable at first glance, using this program to pay for economic supports, such as housing, is counterproductive and shortsighted. This tactic strengthens the State at the expense of survivors and communities in a number of ways.

The design of crime victims compensation exploits survivors’ immediate economic needs to further carceral aims. Crime victims compensation requires victims to cooperate with law enforcement to be eligible. This gives a fairly clear picture of the State’s priorities — victims’ rights and interests are secondary to the ultimate goal of punishing offenders. In the domestic violence context specifically, survivors must either report violence to law enforcement or file for a civil protection order against their abuser (enforced by threat of incarceration).

For survivors whose idea of justice can be accommodated by the criminal justice system, these requirements are not necessarily burdensome. But for other survivors — namely queer survivors, trans survivors, and survivors of color who are routinely victimized and impoverished by the State — it can entail an impossible choice between two perpetrators of violence. It can mean dealing with the very same police officers that are implementing a racist War on Drugs or facing homelessness.

It also requires survivors to meet a subjective “innocent victim” requirement to access compensation. This provision states that individuals must not have “participate[d] in, agree[d] to, or provoke[d] the crime that caused the injury.” It is not hard to imagine how this highly subjective standard can play out — the cases of Marissa Alexander, Nan-Hui Jo, and CeCe McDonald demonstrate how our society wrongfully criminalizes the actions that women of color, immigrant women, and trans women take to defend themselves against violence. It also reaffirms damaging stereotypes that blame these survivors for the violence they experience.

Moreover, the policy is built upon a predatory system of fines and fees. Crime victims compensation is funded, in part, by tactics similar to the strategy Ferguson uses to fund its operations: fines and fees paid to the courts for offenses ranging from minor traffic violations to rape. Failure to pay these penalties can result in imprisonment.

We need to replace these misguided public policies with a survivor-centric model of economic justice. In an era of dwindling money for social services, crime victims compensation is politically palatable because it extracts money from an unpopular minority (individuals who break the law). But realistically, advocates would be unable to meet even a fraction of the demand without this funding. As such, to end the pursuit of economic justice using carceral methods, we need to move beyond petty lip service and commit taxpayer dollars in place of crime victims compensation. This entails holding politicians who embrace austerity while claiming to support survivors’ choices accountable for their hypocrisy.

Most of all, we must build a reality where helping survivors avoid experiencing poverty and violence carries intrinsic value. Where domestic violence advocates work to end both State and interpersonal violence. Only then will survivors be empowered to actualize their conceptions of justice and rebuild their lives.

Header image credit: Texas Tribune/Todd Wiseman

Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

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