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New York’s New Law to Keep Abused Women Out of Prison

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One week later, McMoore and other coalition members boarded the predawn bus to Albany to lobby senators. At one of their meetings, they learned that the Senate was voting on the bill that afternoon—and that McMoore and two other formerly incarcerated women could watch the proceedings from the Senate floor. As she listened, McMoore felt alternately excited and nauseated, she told me. It was after 6 p.m. when the bill was called; it passed with a vote of 54–7. The chamber erupted into applause. The women, laughing and crying simultaneously, hugged one another.

Last Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law.

The movement to consider the role of domestic violence in crimes might be expanding to more conservative parts of the country. In February, lawmakers in Oklahoma, which has the country’s highest rate of female incarceration and one of the highest rates of domestic-violence homicides, introduced HB 1318, which is similar to the New York legislation. The bill is still in early stages, but growing local and national attention to the state’s prison overcrowding and women’s incarceration rates has increased support for criminal-justice reform in Oklahoma from the political right as well as the left, which could help the bill along.

While public understanding about domestic violence has expanded, race and class can still influence perceptions of victimhood. And women who allege they were abused continue to face long sentences for their crimes. In 2012, Marissa Alexander was sentenced in Florida to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her husband, who she alleged had abused her in the past. (In a deposition, her husband acknowledged having been physically violent toward her on multiple occasions.) In 2016, Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old in Ohio, originally faced the possibility of life in prison for fatally shooting her allegedly abusive father. Both cases led to national outcry and advocacy campaigns, and prosecutors later offered plea bargains with more lenient sentences. In April, in Poughkeepsie, New York, Nicole Addimando was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting her boyfriend, who she said had repeatedly abused her. (According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, the prosecutor called Addimando a “master manipulator” who concocted the abuse; he also said that if abuse did occur, Addimando should have left.) A judge could sentence her to 15 to life or 25 to life. But under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, if abuse can be proved, the judge could also consider meting out a shorter prison sentence or a nonprison sentence such as probation.

McMoore, meanwhile, has been rebuilding her life and reestablishing her relationship with her children. Through her advocacy work with the Coalition for Women Prisoners, she landed a job working with women coming home from prison. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment where her children, now adults, can visit whenever they want. This April marked the 10-year anniversary of McMoore’s release from prison. “If you can survive in there,” she told me, “you can come out here and do what needs to be done.”

This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

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