6 ways to make the law-enforcement system work for women

6 ways to make the law-enforcement system work for women

by Anne Tully

As important as it is for feminists to work inside law enforcement, there is an equally urgent need for feminists outside law-enforcement organizations to become involved as advocates, as voices for women, as critics of the current state of affairs, and as citizens who seek to hold prosecutors to a higher standard in dealing with crimes against women. In the 1970s, when sexual violence was barely prosecuted at all, a wave of feminist attention to law enforcement led to some critically important reforms. Another concerted campaign by feminists could do a great deal to get progress started again. The time is ripe for a renewed feminist effort to make law enforcement responsive to women’s needs.

Here are some strategies for doing this, based on what I have learned working inside a very anti-feminist prosecutor’s office.
1.Take grassroots action.The good news is, state prosecutors are very responsive to local activism, because their power bases are local. Well-targeted demonstrations and media coverage — or even petitions, letters, and phone calls, if sustained enough — can really have an effect.
2.Get access to information.Silence, the traditional ally of batterers and rapists, also aids those within law enforcement who perpetuate the abuse of women by refusing to punish it. Feminists must expose what goes on in prosecutors’ offices in order to change what goes on. Court-watching projects, if extensive enough, can be a useful source of information. Check with a law school or women’s rights organization to see if a court-watching project already exists near you; and if you join one, don’t hesitate to approach a prosecutor to ask why a certain case has not been charged as a more serious crime. Another tactic: Write to your local prosecutor, preferably on behalf of a women’s organization, requesting statistics on the numbers of domestic violence and sexual assault arrests they receive — and how many of those eventually end up in dismissals or plea bargains to reduced charges, rather than convictions on the top arrest charges. Sexual assault and domestic violence support groups are also a rich source of firsthand information. Survivors in such groups can provide advocates with accounts of insensitive or misogynist or lazy prosecutors, and advocates can then approach prosecutors and demand explanations and improvements.
3.Focus on what happens to cases that don’t come to trial.Your local prosecutor probably wants you to pay attention to conviction rates — the number of cases prosecutors win as a percentage of those they take to trial. But in order to keep those rates high, prosecutors plead out cases that do not look like easy trial victories, so conviction rates mean very little.
4.Make victim-initiated remedies available.Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have maintained that civil legal remedies must be available for women victimized by violence. I did not really understand their argument for civil (as opposed to criminal) strategies before working in a DA’s office, but now I do. In a civil lawsuit, a victim, not a government-employed prosecutor, makes every decision about her case: whether to initiate a legal action, what charges are appropriate, what evidence she is willing to offer to prove her case, and so on. Ultimately the outcome of her case will be decided by a judge and jury, but at least one of the two sides in this adversarial proceeding will be her side: her version of what happened, her position as to what the consequences should be. Examples of such remedies are the anti-pornography ordinance written by Dworkin and MacKinnon but struck down by federal courts, the civil-rights remedy for gender-motivated violence in the Violence Against Women Act (see “Gender-Justice Breakthrough,” by David Frazee, OTI, fall 1995), and the lawsuit filed, with MacKinnon as counsel, on behalf of Bosnian rape victims.
5.Network within and among professions.Feminist prosecutors need to be forming relationships with, for example, feminist journalists, so that we can confidentially spread information about what is really going on behind the closed doors of our prosecutors’ offices. Similarly, workers in victim-advocacy organizations need to establish communications with sympathetic prosecutors, so that each side can alert the other to important facts about individual women’s cases and help each other serve women’s needs more effectively. Feminist connections within the profession of law are also vital. Women in law school need to set up feminist alumnae networks so that we can be resources for one another. A prosecutor, for example, may meet a domestic violence victim who faces a related battle for child custody; if the prosecutor has stayed in touch with her colleagues in private practice, she can direct the mother to a law firm lawyer who screens pro bono projects.
6.Play hardball and demand results.I’ve watched how state and local prosecutors respond to political pressure and shows of strength — not diplomacy, courtesy, persuasion. And I’ve seen them let down women victims of violence. Take it from an insider, we should not be excessively polite about reminding them of their obligations to all women. It is possible for them to do better. Largely in response to feminist demands for reform, jurisdictions such as San Diego and Nashville have established extremely effective strategies in their police and prosecutors’ offices for combating domestic violence, including the supportive interviewing of victims and the arrest and consistent prosecution of batterers. As a result, some areas have slashed their rates of domestic violence fatalities nearly in half. If we feminists become more informed, more insistent, and more attentive to the prosecution of physical and sexual violence, it is possible — working together, both inside and outside — to make the punishment and the prevention of crimes against women a real priority.–Anne Tullly

“ANNE TULLY” is the pseudonym of a prosecutor in a large city district attorney’s office.