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Anti-violence activists, who often demand harsher penalties for offenders, tend to work in opposition to those fighting overuse of incarceration, who call for the opposite. This antagonism leaves women of color on the sidelines, as they are disproportionately impacted by both gender-based violence and the criminal justice system. The consequences of this dual-marginalization of women of color was the focus of a recent symposium at UC Berkeley, Race, Domestic and Sexual Violence: From the Prison Nation to Community Resistance.”

Beth Richie spoke about how the Anti-Violence Against Women movement was coopted” by the Tough on Crime movement, and thus contributed to the rise of over-incarceration. The battered women’s movement, Richie explained, began as grassroots activism, with communities offering services and shelter to victims. Gradually, the movement gained steam and political power when people began recognizing that all women, not just Black and poor women, could become victims of domestic violence. Lawmakers began to see domestic violence as a crime — and this, said Richie, is how we won the mainstream but lost the movement.”

Victims of domestic violence and rape, said Richie, were taught to turn to the criminal justice system for support and protection. This approach bolstered the country’s increasing reliance on criminal justice solutions to solve social problems, and in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was attached to the Crime Bill, the notorious legislation that widened the death penalty, federally legislated three strikes” laws, and provided $9.7 billion in funding for prisons. The bill placed the Office of Violence against Women in the Department of Justice, thus aligning protection of women victims with the criminal justice system.

Not only did the feminist anti-violence movement lose its community activist roots, Richie said, but it has also failed to decrease the rates of violence against women of color. Victims of gender-based crimes who are ethnic minorities often have different needs than white women victims, due to their societal marginalization and often lower socioeconomic status. But the mainstream feminist anti-violence movement focused on the plight of the latter. Now, said Richie, women of color are actually at increased risk of violence, because they are victimized by the prison nation,” which is plagued by racial inequities and which feminist anti-violence activists helped to build.

An over-reliance on incarceration emphasizes individual punishment without addressing the root causes of crime nor treating the needs of victims. On the contrary, it exacerbates both: When money is diverted to the criminal justice system, the budgets for social programs, including women’s shelters, public housing, education, and welfare, often suffer cuts. After this divestment, people who rely on these resources are then criminalized in a deplorable cycle of disenfranchisement. The best way to protect all women is to develop strategies that respond to violence but are not dependent on incarceration, including restorative justice, transformative justice, and other community-based practices that repair harm.