Excerpt from “How criminal justice reform fails incarcerated women,” by Victoria Law, published by Al Jazeera
Feb 13, 2016

Upwards of 10,000 women are in state prisons for murder. Some are survivors of domestic violence whose actions were desperate attempts to defend themselves from increasingly violent partners. Federal guidelines play no role in their sentences, meaning that the most promising proposals on the national level will not affect their fates. For these women, reforms on the state level are desperately needed, but even in the age of criminal justice reform, few politicians are willing to advocate less draconian sentences — let alone alternatives to incarceration — for women labeled as murderers.

“Arleen” is one of these 34,000 women. Arleen has served 14 years of a 50-year sentence for murder. But her story is more nuanced than that single word lets on. Arleen spent years being abused by her live-in boyfriend, a military veteran. Several times, she ended the relationship and moved out. Each time, he apologized and promised to change. Each time, she believed him and returned. Life would be peaceful for a while, but then the arguments would begin and abuse would soon follow.

The couple was in the process of buying a house and Arleen hoped that the change from a small apartment to a more spacious house would stop his violence. Just before they closed on the property, Arleen fixed a celebratory dinner — but instead, her boyfriend started an argument, then threw her onto the couch and began to choke her. She grabbed his gun from under the couch and, breaking free, ran out of their apartment. Her boyfriend chased her. She said that, when she turned, the gun went off and she fatally shot him.

Panicking, Arleen dropped the gun and kept running, believing that he was still after her. Only later did she learn that she had fatally shot him. Now in her sixties, Arleen has applied for and been denied parole twice. If she spends the entire 50 years in prison, she will be 98 years old before she exits the prison gates.

Arleen is one of thousands of women ignored by current discussions about criminal justice reform. Her story illustrates how the criminal justice system often treats women who have endured years of violence. In 1999, the Department of Justice reported that nearly half of all women in prison had experienced abuse before their arrests. The report also noted that, of women convicted of murder, the overwhelming majority of those killed were intimate partners or family members. Since then, no other report has tracked either incarcerated women’s history of abuse or the relationships between women convicted of murder and their victims.

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