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Position Statement on Criminal Responses to Domestic Violence

WSCADV is working for a Washington State where everyone is free from violence and abuse. We believe this future is possible if we prioritize strategies to improve community well-being for all people and address the underlying conditions that allow violence to occur, rather than continuing to over-rely on criminal legal solutions as the primary strategy for ending domestic violence.

It has been four decades since Washington State’s first domestic violence law was passed in 1979, naming violence in the home, and some of the most common forms of men’s violence against women, as a crime. Since then we have learned a great deal about how this approach impacts survivors and communities across the state. Criminal interventions, namely arrest, prosecution, and incarceration in jail or prison of abusive partners, have provided increased safety for many individual survivors of domestic violence at least temporarily, and have undoubtedly saved lives. Making physical acts of domestic violence a crime has helped change society’s long acceptance of abuse.

However, many survivors have faced increased violence or other negative outcomes from contact with the criminal system. This is particularly the case for women of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and survivors with disabilities, but also the experience of survivors in general. As a result, many survivors cannot or will not turn to police and courts for help. In fact, a national study found that 70% of survivors who had never called the police reported that they were afraid doing so would make their situation worse. Two-thirds of survivors who had called the police in the past reported that they were afraid to call the police again.

Survivors of domestic violence tell us that they need: Freedom – to make their own choices about their lives; Options – to live safely and independently from an abusive partner; and Connection – to be listened to and believed in their communities. And they want the violence to stop. Therefore, it is time to look at promising strategies to intervene in and prevent future violence while increasing survivors’ dignity and choices. Many of these strategies are already in practice in communities across Washington State. This has been achieved through investments in innovative policies and initiatives that increase the resources and options available for survivors to find safety and stability. These effective non-criminal strategies include community-based education and prevention, Domestic Violence Housing First, housing and employment protections, and civil court remedies.

Criminal interventions remain an important option for intervening to stop illegal violence, but they cannot be the only option for ending abuse. The time is now for Washington State to expand the range of options available for people to find safety and justice, and for preventing future violence. Prioritizing policies and approaches that increase survivor and community access to resources, education, and services, will create the future free from violence and abuse that all people deserve.