Reauthorizing VAWA in current form could be grave mistake
By E. Everett Bartlett
The 112th Congress adjourned last week without reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The failure of Congress to pass either the Senate- or House-approved (S. 1925 or H.R. 4970) versions was the by-product both of partisan wrangling, as well as acerbic personal attacks that were later derided by the Huffington Post as “incendiary and extreme.”
But the last-ditch negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and House Leader Eric Cantor side-stepped the most important question of all: Are VAWA-funded programs working?
Most VAWA funds are directed to beefing up the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence. But according to Angela Moore Parmley, PhD of the Department of Justice, “We have no evidence to date that VAWA has led to a decrease in the overall levels of violence against women.”
A look at specific VAWA-funded programs reveals the reasons behind Dr. Parmley’s concern:
1. Prosecutions (VAWA Section 101): Research reveals “Increases in the willingness of prosecutors’ offices to take cases of protection order violation were associated with increases in the homicide of white married intimates, black unmarried intimates, and white unmarried females.” Thus for most groups, prosecuting restraining order violations actually increased homicide rates.
2. Pro-arrest policies (Section 103): According to a Harvard University study of mandatory arrest, “Intimate partner homicides increased by about 60 percent in states with mandatory arrest laws.” Mandatory arrest discourages victims from calling for help, placing them at greater risk of a mortal outcome.
3. Restraining Orders (Section 103): VAWA also supports the enforcement of protection orders. As far as their impact, opinion is divided whether such orders are simply ineffective, or whether they actually escalate and worsen the abuse.
Finally, many domestic violence groups have incorrectly attributed the cause of the decline in partner violence. Writing in The Hill’s Congress Blog, Sharon Stapel recently wrote, “VAWA has dramatically reduced intimate partner violence: the Department of Justice estimates the reduction at 64 percent from 1993 to 2010.”
The second part of her claim is correct, the first is not. FBI statistics indicate the number of intimate partner homicides began to fall in the late 1970s, long before passage of VAWA.
As an Ifeminists.net editorial recently pointed out, “the downward trend in domestic violence is just part of a larger, society-wide drop in all violent crime. Indeed, incidents of violent crime generally dropped from about 80 per 100,000 people in 1993 to about 21 in 2010. That’s a decrease of almost 74 percent.”
The reason why criminal justice measures are ineffective or harmful is simple: they don’t address the actual causes of domestic violence, particularly substance abuse, psychological disorders, and marital instability. Abuse-reduction efforts should emphasize substance abuse treatment, counseling, and the like, with aggressive arrest and prosecution being essential but back-up strategies. In short, we need more counseling and less incarceration.
So before the Senate or House introduce any new VAWA reauthorization bills, we need to answer the question, Are VAWA programs harmful, helpful, or merely ineffective? Marching forward without resolving this pivotal concern could turn out to be a grave mistake for future victims of domestic violence.
Bartlett is the president of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, a victim-advocacy organization working for evidence-based solutions to domestic violence.