Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School

New Report: Avon Global Center investigates failures to secure justice for domestic violence survivor defendants in New York State

The Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School and the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York present a study on the barriers to justice faced by women survivor-defendants in New York State.  The report - “From Protection to Punishment: Post-Conviction Barriers to Justice for Domestic Violence Survivor-Defendants in New York State” - points out that survivor-defendants, who, though convicted of crimes when protecting themselves from abuse, often face long prison sentences. 


The Report notes that an estimated nine out of ten women in New York prisons are survivors of physical and sexual abuse.  Many of these women are survivors of domestic abuse, and the crimes for which they have been sentenced are often directly related to their abuse.   In many cases, the police failed to investigate and enforce laws against domestic abuse, the attorneys failed to raise the issue during the trial, and the judges failed to consider past victimization and institutional failures during the sentencing phase.  Often, these women receive and serve the maximum sentences in prison for their crimes, with no regard for their prior abuse or the failures of the justice system to first protect them as victims of criminal violence.

Through research and interviews, the Avon Global Center, in partnership with the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, has conducted a study that examines the barriers to justice that domestic violence survivors face when they become defendants to criminal proceedings for reasons related to their abuse.  The study considered these issues through an international human rights framework, which requires governments to prevent, investigate, and punish violence against women. The project culminated in a report that analyzes the challenges and injustices survivor-defendants face after they are convicted and offers recommendations for reform. 

Key recommendations of the Report include:

  • Allowing judges to sentence domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes directly related to abuse to shorter prison terms and, in some cases, to community-based alternatives to incarceration.
  • Providing domestic violence survivors currently in prison the opportunity to appeal to the courts for re-sentencing.
  • Allocating funds to expand and establish more alternative-to-incarceration, court advocacy and re-entry programs specifically designed to meet the needs of survivor-defendants.
  • Allowing individuals incarcerated for violent crimes, including domestic violence survivors, to earn merit time credits and expanding eligibility for temporary work release.
  • Allowing individuals incarcerated for violent offenses, including domestic violence survivors, to have parole release decisions about them made not solely on the nature of the offense for which they are incarcerated but with appropriate weight given to their institutional confinement record and actual public safety risk.

The Report also suggests that the DV Survivors Justice Act, a bill pending in the New York state legislature, is an important way to address some of the major challenges facing survivor-defendants in obtaining justice.  It was released on June 5, 2011, in conjunction with a legislative advocacy day in Albany organized by the Coalition for Women Prisoners, which is coordinated by the WIPP, to raise support for the proposed legislation.  Elizabeth Brundige spoke about the report at an Advocacy Day press briefing, and she was joined at the event by six Avon Global Center summer research associates.

For further information on the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, please see the guest comment by Tamar Kraft-Stolar, Women in Prison Project Director, and Jaya Vasandani, Women in Prison Project Associate Director, Correctional Association of New York.

The Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York and the National Association of Women Judges, New York Chapter, Women in Prison Committee hosted a panel discussion on related topics on March 14, 2011.  The panel brought together judges, academics, domestic violence survivor-defendants and advocates from the Women in Prison Project, Coalition for Women Prisoners’ Violence Against Women Committee and STEPS to End Family Violence to exchange views and recommendations for reducing barriers to justice faced by survivor-defendants in New York State. Please click here to find out more about the panel discussion and to listen to audio recordings from the event.