Leigh Goodmark on “Imperfect Victims” and the Need for Abolition Feminism

Leigh Goodmark on “Imperfect Victims” and the Need for Abolition Feminism

Leigh Goodmark on “Imperfect Victims” and the Need for Abolition Feminism

A conversation with lawyer and advocate Leigh Goodmark on her new book about the criminalization of survivors and the promise of abolition feminism.


Leigh Goodmark is a lawyer and advocate for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence. She began her legal career by representing domestic violence victims and arguing for swift and harsh intervention. But she says her clients—and the system itself—showed her how ineffective these criminal interventions are. Now, she argues the opposite—that the criminal legal system fails to decrease or deter gender-based violence and punishes the victims of that violence. She is the director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey Law School and is frequently called upon by the media to contextualize criminal cases in which survivors of violence are prosecuted for acts of survival, such as Tracy McCarter, whose charges were eventually dropped.

In her new book, Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism, Goodmark illustrates the many ways in which greater state intervention has become another form of violence, particularly against women of color and trans and gender-nonconforming survivors. Goodmark looks instead towards abolition feminism, which challenges and upends the notion that carceral structures, such as policing and prison, can still be used to address gender violence and instead pushes for resources, both community-based and institutional, that prevent root causes of violence and address instances that occur.

Goodmark spoke with The Nation about the pitfalls of carceral feminism, or relying on the criminal legal system to stop abuse, the continual criminalization of survivors, and the promise of abolition feminism.

—Victoria Law

Victoria Law: The criminalization and incarceration of survivors has long been overlooked by both media and criminal justice advocates. What led you to write this book and why now?

Leigh Goodmark: I started representing criminalized survivors about nine years ago. I was also helping to facilitate a group of lifers at the Maryland women’s prison. We talked about writing a book together, where they would write their stories and I would provide the larger social science and legal context. That project was vetoed by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which claimed it was against policy. The women urged me to write something anyway. So this really started as a collaborative project, and in many ways still is because it offers stories about my own clients, in addition to talking about other criminalized survivors whom I didn’t represent or whom I don’t know at all.

Over the past 40 years in the United States, we have turned to criminalization as the response to many social issues, including gender-based violence. In 1984, the US Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence released a report quoting then-prosecutor (and current judge and pro-Trump supporter) Jeanine Pirro that domestic violence was a criminal problem requiring a criminal justice intervention. In Connecticut, Tracey Thurman won her lawsuit against the police department for failing to protect her from her abusive ex-husband, who repeatedly stabbed her, leaving her permanently paralyzed. And that same year, sociologists Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk published an article stating that arrest has a deterrent effect on domestic violence. [In later years, Sherman published a study finding that arrest increases violence among unemployed men and recommended replacing mandatory arrest policies. In another study, he found that arresting abusers increases victims’ death rates of all natural causes.]

People start to coalesce around those three 1984 events to say the criminal system isn’t intervening. If we start arresting people, it will stop the violence.

One of the consequences has been a huge increase in the number of survivors of gender-based violence who have been punished in some way by the criminal legal system. Those punishments are becoming more common and more severe.

VL: What do we know about how often the criminalization of survivors happens and why it happens?

LG: We honestly don’t know much about how often it happens. It’s difficult to collect that data. Whether someone is a criminalized survivor or not is hotly contested. Prosecutors would tell you that Marissa Alexander [originally sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot to ward off her attacking husband] is not a criminalized survivor and that many of the women in my book are not criminalized survivors. Who gets to make that call for counting purposes?

There are two different data-collection efforts going on in the United States right now that I’m aware of that are trying to count just a very small part of the criminalized survivor population, which is the population who has killed an intimate partner in self-defense. But the issue is so much bigger than self-defense.

Nearly every incarcerated person is a criminalized survivor in one way or another. There are very few people who are incarcerated who have not experienced trauma in some way. The arrest rates of women, particularly, have increased significantly in the United States over the last 40 years. And they’ve done so in part as a result of increasing criminalization of intimate partner violence.

For example, [as a response to advocacy efforts by some anti-violence advocates] mandatory arrest policies in the United States were adopted in order to remove police discretion to ignore intimate partner violence. Mandatory arrest policies require police to make an arrest in an intimate partner violence case whenever they have probable cause to do so. Arrest rates not surprisingly went up as a result, but they went up for women more than anyone else, particularly for women of color and especially for Black women.

In Connecticut, for example, Black and Latina women make up about 25 percent of the population, but more than 50 percent of those arrested for intimate partner violence. Criminalization is undoubtedly playing a role in this increase.

VL: What role do race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, or other intersecting identities play in the criminalization of survivors?

LG: Victimization has very strict requirements. To be legible as a victim, you need to be white and a particular kind of white, a refined whiteness, not a rough whiteness. You need to be straight, you need to be cisgender, you need to not have mental health issues or substance abuse issues. You can’t be angry, you can’t be defensive, and you can’t fight back. You have to be meek and weak and passive.

Just in outlining the stereotypes, you see that there are all kinds of groups of people who are not considered perfect victims. If you are Black, you are an imperfect victim by definition, because you are not white and victimization is coded white. If you are someone who fights back against their partner, you’re not a perfect victim.

VL: In some cases followed by the media—such as Tracy McCarter, Wendy Howard, or Maddesyn George—it seems that they and their support campaigns made their experiences of gender-based violence a focal point for their defense—and won a dismissal of all charges, an acquittal, or a significantly shorter prison sentence. Is this a sign that perceptions of criminalized survivors are starting to shift?

LG: People who are lucky enough to have good survivor defense campaigns can really shift the balance. That’s very clear from Tracy’s case. It was clear from Joanne Little’s case in the 1970s. [In 1974, Joan Little, a 20-year-old Black woman, killed the 62-year-old white jail guard who raped her. Her case garnered attention and support from around the country, raising the question of whether a Black woman had the right to defend herself from white sexual violence. At trial, she was acquitted.]

The Joan Little survivor defense campaign made a huge difference in the way that that case was perceived. When you have a campaign that can do that kind of advocacy and do it in conjunction with the lawyers, that’s the best of all possible worlds. It still doesn’t mean necessarily that people will not be punished. Maddeysn George is an example of that. She is still doing six and a half years in federal prison. Nikki Addimando is still doing seven and a half years in state prison. Both had terrific survivor defense campaigns. But this system is pretty determined to exact its pound of flesh from criminalized survivors, and it is absolutely still doing that.

VL: You end your book with a chapter on abolition feminism. Talk more about the limitations of reforms and about abolition feminism.

LG: I owe an enormous debt to a bunch of folks who have thought about this. I owe a special debt to Critical Resistance and their way of thinking about reformist versus non-reformist reforms.

Juvenile diversion programs, gender responsive prisons, the criminalization of intimate partner violence under the Violence Against Women Act are all reformist reforms. They tinker around the edges of the criminal legal system, but they accept the legitimacy of that system as a given. They’re not changing the underlying conditions for people, and they’re not challenging the structures that undergird the carceral response to gender-based violence.

There was a time in my life where I didn’t think twice about that. But thanks to learning from people like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Andrea Ritchie, Beth Richie, Critical Resistance, Colby Lenz, Alisa Bierria, and you and Maya [Schenwar], I can’t accept that those are legitimate ways to address this system anymore.

The system isn’t failing. The system is doing exactly what the system was designed to do, which is to police and punish the behavior of people who fail to conform to a certain set of norms. It’s a system created to punish imperfect victims, and that is what it’s doing.

Abolition feminism is a feminism that rejects the idea that the carceral state should be our response to anything and rejects the carceral state more generally. Police and prison abolition is the ultimate goal, but abolition feminism recognizes that there are any number of steps along the way towards that goal.

In the context of criminalized survivors, for example, abolition feminism tells us to get rid of material-witness warrants that are used to compel victims of gender-based violence to comply with prosecution, and to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences, which are used to inflate the terms of incarceration of criminalized survivors, and rededicate money that’s going into the criminal legal system. Through the VAWA and other channels towards prevention and towards community-based responses and towards addressing the actual correlates of intimate partner violence.

Abolition feminism tells us to support survivor defense campaigns and to think about how we can get people out who are currently incarcerated using tools like Second Look legislation and the parole system.

VL: What are concrete steps that readers can take today to incorporate abolition feminism into their daily lives?

LG: One change in your daily practice is to be extremely critical of the “true crime” media that you consume—or stop consuming it all together, unless it’s made with the cooperation and input of the criminalized survivor. My clients are the subjects of a number of true-crime shows, such as Snapped. The pain that it causes them and their families when those shows are played is intense and real. To the extent that we continue to drive a market for that kind of media, we are contributing to their victimization.

Another step is to think critically when you’re told that gender-based violence can’t be part of any criminal system reform. It’s an argument that gets made all the time. When New York, Oklahoma, and other states looked at eliminating cash bail or other reforms to pretrial detention, the response was often “but not for gender-based violence.” That ignores the fact that survivors are victimized by those same laws, that survivors are being held on no bail in cases where they’ve acted in their own defense, that survivors are being subjected to mandatory minimums. So think about how the reforms offered impact criminalized survivors, and then weigh in. Tell your legislator, “This is not doing what you think it’s doing. Opposing this reform because of gender based violence is hurting survivors.”

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