When Patrice Smith was 15 years old, she was convicted of second-degree murder for killing 71-year-old Robert Robinson. Smith had refused to have sex with Robinson, prompting him to attack her and threaten to shoot her. In the months leading up to this incident, Robinson had repeatedly raped, sexually abused, and exploited Smith. He paid her for sexual acts, asked her to have sex with his friends, and requested that she bring other “young girls” to him. Despite ample evidence of this abuse, Smith was sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison.
Stories like Patrice Smith’s are common among incarcerated women. Over the last 40 years, the number of incarcerated women in the United States has increased by more than 475%. The vast majority of incarcerated women are survivors of physical or sexual abuse, often at the hands of intimate partners or family members. Countless others have experienced other forms of domestic violence, including emotional abuse, financial abuse, and coercive control.
American legal systems, including Connecticut’s, too often punish survivors for behavior directly responsive to abuse. As in Patrice Smith’s case, survivors may act violently towards their abusers in an attempt to escape an unsafe situation. Or survivors’ abusers may coerce them into committing crimes, or force them to take responsibility for the abuser’s criminal acts. Furthermore, well-established research shows that exposure to trauma is associated with behavioral challenges and clinical symptoms that can contribute to criminal conduct. Domestic violence survivors are also at greater risk for developing substance abuse or mental health issues, which in turn increases their risk of arrest and prosecution.
Connecticut should follow the lead of states that recognize that domestic violence survivors deserve trauma-informed sentences.
In response to decades of grassroot efforts led by incarcerated women, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) in 2019. In passing the bill, New York legislators recognized that the criminal legal system was responding to domestic violence survivors with “harsh punishment” instead of “compassion and assistance.” Under the DVSJA, judges are empowered to impose shorter sentences than otherwise required if defendants show that domestic violence played a significant role in their offense. The Act also allows judges to resentence incarcerated survivors who make the same showing.
Patrice Smith was one of the first women to be resentenced under the DVSJA. She was released from prison in September 2020, having served over 21 years behind bars. Other women who have been resentenced under the DVSJA include Jonitha Alston, a mother who was convicted of manslaughter for killing her abusive boyfriend after he rushed her with a knife, and Nicole Addimando, who was convicted of second-degree murder after enduring years of brutal physical and sexual abuse by her domestic partner.
Other states have also passed laws that require decision makers to consider domestic violence victimization during sentencing decisions. Illinois law explicitly recognizes domestic violence victimization as a mitigating factor in sentencing, and it provides an opportunity for resentencing based on domestic violence history. California requires parole boards to give “great weight” to any evidence that a person was a victim of intimate partner violence at the time of the offense. Similar legislative efforts are underway in Oklahoma and Michigan.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month—a time dedicated to building awareness about issues impacting survivors and fostering coalitions to enact change.
Now is the time for Connecticut residents, and legislators, to learn more about the far-reaching effects of trauma and the experiences of incarcerated survivors. Now is also the time for change. Connecticut should amend its sentencing laws to provide survivors with a full opportunity to show how domestic violence contributed to their offense. Judges should factor evidence of domestic violence into initial sentencing decisions and incarcerated survivors should be able to seek review of their sentences based on their history of abuse.
The judge who released Smith under the DVSJA was the same judge who, decades earlier, had sentenced her to 25 years-to-life. In her opinion, Judge Sheila DiTullio recognized how New York’s sentencing scheme does not excuse criminal conduct but instead provides a “new lens” through which to view a survivor’s actions. “What we have learned from the last two decades,” Judge DiTullio wrote, “is that victims of domestic violence should be viewed by our criminal justice system in a manner that recognizes not only their status as offenders but…their status as survivors.”
Elizabeth Clarke and Ali Fraerman are student interns at the Yale Law School Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic.