Are NY’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws snaring battered women?

 

Kim Dadou steps to the podium in a conference room in Albany, New York.

She smiles nervously at the cameras and the reporters, running a hand over the scars on her neck.

“I served seventeen years in prison for the death of my abuser,” Dadou says. “I was a victim before I was a defendant.”

After being convicted of first degree manslaughter, Dadou was sentenced under New York’s mandatory minimum laws – laws that don’t allow judges to consider domestic violence as a factor.

Dadou says it didn’t matter that her boyfriend had been arrested five times for attacking her brutally.

“I did have police reports. I had a report at the battered women’s shelter in Rochester. I had all the evidence, all the proof. These are not alleged scars. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help.”

As this year’s legislative session winds to a close in Albany, a coalition of prison reform and domestic violence activists are hoping to convince the Republican-controlled Senate to bring one more bill to the floor for a vote.

They say judges in New York should have more leeway to factor physical and mental abuse into sentencing decisions in felony criminal cases.

Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson is a lead sponsor of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Photo: Correctional Association

Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson is a lead sponsor of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Photo: Correctional Association

“I’ve watched the things that have happened to women and how women find themselves in situations without an escape hatch. Many of them have ended up in prison,” says Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat from the Bronx and lead sponsor of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.

She says her bill would shift power away from prosecutors and give judges the flexibility to consider abuse – allowing courts to divert battered women who commit crimes away from prison into alternative programs.

“And we’re not suggesting that every case that is considered will change. We’re saying, ‘Take another look.’ And be able to do justice. Not favor, justice.”

Prosecutors oppose this bill, but the District Attorneys Association of New York declined to answer questions about their concerns.

In an email, a spokesman for the group argued that the legislation is too broad and doesn’t give enough weight to victims of crime or to public safety.

Tamar Kraft-Stolar, with a group called the Women In Prison Project,  part of the Correctional Association of New York, says the bill does include important guidelines that would limit judge’s discretion only to cases where domestic violence was a major factor in the crime.

“So the first part of that test is if the person proves that they were a survivor of substantial domestic violence at the time of the offense,” Kraft-Stolar says.

“The second is proving that connection, that abuse was a significant contributing factor to the crime. And the third, the judge has to find that it would be unduly harsh to sentence a person under current law. So there are protections in the bill.”

This bill has broad support – including the backing of victims rights activists. More than thirty co-sponsors have signed on in the state Assembly, with thirty co-sponsors in the state Senate. That’s likely enough backing to win passage.

But Senator Hassell-Thompson says it’s unclear whether the coalition leadership that controls the state Senate will bring bill to floor for a vote before the session ends.

“When the governor declared that this was going to be the year of the women’s movement again in the state of New York and I had thought there would be a place for this bill in the women’s agenda. But it didn’t find itself there. So it just means we have to work harder.”

This bill comes as part of a wider debate in New York and across the US over the amount of sentencing discretion held by judges— and over the appropriateness of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Kim Dadou served 17 years in state prison after being convicted of first degree manslaughter following the death of her abusive boyfriend.  (Photo:  Correctional Association)

Kim Dadou served 17 years in state prison after being convicted of first degree manslaughter following the death of her abusive boyfriend. (Photo: Correctional Association)

Kim Dadou, who’s been out of prison five years now, says she hopes the debate leads to a new, more nuanced way of thinking about crime and punishment.

“I wasn’t offered an alternative to incarceration. I was offered flat time. No one paid attention to the abuse, to what I had been through. Somebody died, somebody has to pay. That’s what the law says.”

Supporters of the bill say as many as 360 men and women now serving time in New York would be eligible for resentencing if this law were to be enacted.

They also say as many as four hundred men and women could be diverted away from prison each year if domestic violence is considered as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by ACT, the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org.

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