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Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School

Discussion on Domestic Violence and Incarceration

Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women & Justice organized a roundtable discussion in New York City for five Ghanaian women judges, centered on the intersection of domestic violence and women’s incarceration.  All of the judges were participants in the five-week Ghana Jurist-in-Residence Program organized by the Virtue Foundation Institute for Innovation and Philanthropy in Ghana, in collaboration with the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, and the Office of Court Administration of New York.  The program provided the judges with training on topics such as legal research and writing, fair trial issues, gender and the judiciary, and issues of vulnerable groups in the courts.  The jurists also shadowed U.S. judges who are working New York’s innovative problem-solving courts.  The Jurist-in-Residence Program’s goal was to prepare the judges to develop and implement a model Family Justice Center in Ghana. 

The Jurists in Residence’s meeting with the Avon Global Center took place on April 25, 2011, hosted by the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP.  Avon Global Center Executive Director Sara Lulo opened the day’s discussion with an overview of the Avon Global Center’s work, particularly the research services and resources available to assist judges. Associate Director Liz Brundige then spoke about the links between domestic violence and the incarceration of women.  She described the Center’s research in conjunction with the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project on barriers to justice for domestic violence survivors in New York State who, for reasons relating to the abuse they experienced, have become criminal defendants.

This set the stage for a discussion on innovations and programs in New York designed to better meet the particular circumstances of such cases involving a history of domestic violence.  This discussion was led by three guest speakers from STEPS to End Family Violence, a nonprofit organization that provides services aimed at helping incarcerated women with histories of abuse.  STEPS also manages the only alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) program specifically designed for survivors in New York State.  Sister Mary Nerney, founder of STEPS, Jesenia Santana, STEPS Legal Services Coordinator, and Rebecca Holmes, STEPS ATI Coordinator, elaborated upon the problems that survivors of domestic violence face in the criminal justice system, STEPS’ approach to direct services for survivor-defendants and incarcerated women survivors, and its innovative ATI program in which judges may mandate survivors to participate as an alternative to being sent to prison.

The judges shared their insights and experiences with related issues in Ghana.  The day’s meeting provided the opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas for more effective handling of such cases where the domestic violence survivor’s criminal case is directly connected to the defendant’s history of abuse.  The day’s meeting also was instructive in highlighting shared concerns and challenges regarding cases – in both the US and Ghana – involving domestic violence survivors as criminal defendants.