If a survivor is found guilty despite her claims of abuse, a compassionate judge may decide against sentencing her to prison. But even then, mandatory sentencing sometimes leaves no choice in the matter. This was the case for Ramona Brant, a domestic violence survivor convicted of conspiracy as part of her abusive boyfriend’s drug ring. At sentencing, her judge admitted, “I absolutely am shocked by the severity of the sentence” but, under mandatory sentencing laws, had no choice but to sentence her to life imprisonment. After 21 years in prison, Brant was granted clemency by President Barack Obama and now lives with her family in North Carolina. But Brant’s happier ending is an exception, not the rule, in how the legal system treats abuse survivors.
As reported previously in Rewire, no one knows how many abuse survivors are imprisoned for defending themselves against domestic violence. Similarly, no governmental agency tracks how many survivors are incarcerated for actions committed by their abusers.
The adversarial nature of the criminal justice system often doesn’t allow prosecutors to explore nuances such as the effects of domestic violence on a person’s ability to act. As reported previously in Rewire, the trauma resulting from domestic violence can result in difficulty making decisions, difficulties in concentration, inattentiveness, emotional numbness, memory lapses, and withdrawal—actions that might be perceived by police and prosecutors as failure to take necessary steps to stop their abusers from other harmful deeds. In addition, abuse can compel survivors to avoid situations they perceive as dangerous, which can include placing themselves in potentially harmful situations by reporting those crimes.
“The truth is, as double victims, we are unable to heal because now we begin to fight an even more powerful abuser—the system. Why? Because now we are expected to read the mind of another, know his choices and, the biggest shocker of them all, be able to stop him when we’ve never been able to before,” [Kelly Savage] reflected. “Let’s be honest—a domestic violence survivor cannot stop an abuser. Only an abuser can stop his or her behavior. If only we could get the criminal justice system to see the truth and reality of that.””