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In 2019, New York State passed a groundbreaking new law called the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA). This law changes how courts sentence survivors of domestic violence who commit crimes connected to their abuse.
Before DVSJA, judges didn’t have a lot of flexibility when sentencing domestic violence survivors. They had to give long, harsh sentences even if the crime was clearly linked to abuse the person suffered. DVSJA created more options for judges to give shorter, fairer sentences in these cases.
The DVSJA allows courts to give more lenient sentences to domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes directly related to their abuse. For example, if a survivor hurt or killed their abusive partner to protect themselves or their child.
Specifically, it lets judges in New York consider if:
If all this is true, the judge can lower the prison sentence to better fit the situation. The DVSJA applies to many different felonies, including violent ones. Survivors can apply even if they took a plea deal years ago.
Over 35 survivors have gotten their sentences shortened under DVSJA so far. Most are women, and many are people of color. On average, they’ve gotten about 2 years taken off their sentences.
For a long time, New York’s sentencing laws were very rigid. Judges didn’t have flexibility to factor in things like domestic abuse. Survivors often got punished harshly even when the crime clearly related to their victimization.
Domestic violence can trap people in abusive relationships through power and control. Abusers may force survivors to commit crimes as a way to keep controlling them. Survivors may also act in desperate attempts to protect themselves or their children from violence.
But New York’s one-size-fits-all sentencing didn’t account for this complex reality. Survivors went to prison for self-defense or coerced crimes. They lost precious years of life behind bars.
DVSJA tries to fix this by letting judges consider the whole context. It recognizes domestic violence’s lasting trauma and gives survivors a chance at fairer justice.
Incarcerated women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility started this reform movement back in 1985. They shared how domestic abuse led to their arrests and called for change.
Advocates and formerly incarcerated survivors then launched an official DVSJA campaign in 2009. They partnered with domestic violence groups, attorneys, judges and others to draft the legislation.
It took 10 years of tireless work before the New York legislature finally passed DVSJA in 2019. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law, a huge victory for survivors.
The DVSJA has specific requirements to qualify for resentencing:
Meeting these strict standards is difficult. Survivors must recount traumatic details of the abuse and its impact. Defense attorneys have to gather evidence from years past.
Despite the challenges, dozens have succeeded in getting their sentences reduced under DVSJA.
Maria’s story shows the complex realities domestic violence survivors face in the justice system. It also reveals limitations of the DVSJA when combined with immigration policies.
Maria endured years of physical and emotional abuse by her partner in New York. He controlled every aspect of her life, isolated her from family, and scared her into submission.
One day, he violently beat Maria until she thought she would die. In desperation, she found his gun and shot him in what she believed was self-defense.
The justice system treated Maria as a cold-blooded killer, not an abuse victim defending her life. She took a plea deal for manslaughter and got sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Behind bars, Maria found help through an advocate with Sanctuary for Families. They petitioned under DVSJA due to the clear link between Maria’s abuse and crime. In 2021, a judge agreed to lower her sentence to 9 years.
While a huge victory, DVSJA could not undo the entire injustice. Maria remained detained by ICE after her release from prison. She won her immigration case eventually, but only after another year in detention fighting deportation.
Maria’s story shows the limits of DVSJA for immigrant survivors. It shortens prison time but leaves convictions intact, which drives deportation. Maria got lucky but many others face permanent exile from the U.S. even after DVSJA relief.
The DVSJA was a major achievement for domestic violence sentencing reform. But work continues to expand and improve such policies.
Advocates are pushing to widen DVSJA eligibility, like including dating partners and family beyond intimate relationships. Others want to increase judicial education on domestic abuse trauma.
Some argue DVSJA should also give judges power to re-evaluate convictions themselves, not just reduce sentences. This could help prevent unintended immigration consequences.
There’s also talk of extending the policy beyond New York. Over a dozen states have introduced similar bills. Efforts continue to make these laws both broader and deeper nationwide.
The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was the first of its kind when New York adopted it in 2019. It became a model for states seeking more just sentencing for abuse survivors who commit crimes.
But the DVSJA is still new, with less than 50 cases granted so far. Some call it a bold experiment in criminal justice reform, one that will evolve as courts interpret the law.
Key questions remain unsettled about the DVSJA’s scope and impact. Who exactly qualifies, how much discretion judges have, what makes a sentence “unfair” under the law. The coming years will determine just how far-reaching this landmark legislation proves to be.
Regardless, the DVSJA remains a sign of progress. A recognition that mandatory sentencing fails to deliver true justice. And an overdue step toward empathy and redemption for domestic violence survivors in New York.
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