If you ask President Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—passed as part of former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, with expansions authorized every few years since—was an unabashed good that single-handedly taught Americans to take domestic violence seriously. As I have written, this is a huge exaggeration of the facts. Actually, VAWA’s overreliance upon law enforcement and cop-centric solutions led to many issues for the victims and made it harder to find less dangerous ways of addressing violence.
“VAWA married antiviolence feminists and the violent state,” said Erica R. Meiners, Northeastern Illinois University Professor in their 2020 book. The Feminist, and the Sex Offender. The act “overwhelmingly leans on arrest and prosecution—in other words, criminalization, an option that fails to serve many women.”
Surprisingly, however, the most recent VAWA update addresses these issues. Gewalt against the state against women. The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act (2022) was introduced in the U.S. Senate last week. It contains sections about improving the conditions of women in federal custody as well as “closing” the consent loophole in law enforcement.
Better Treatment for Female Prisoners
VAWA offers a wide range of reforms that will benefit women in federal custody. It includes better access and control to menstrual products, as well as a pilot program that allows women who have given birth in federal prison to not lose their baby.
To this latter end, the law would “establish a pilot program…to permit women incarcerated in Federal prisons and the children born to such women during incarceration to reside together while the inmate serves a term of imprisonment.”
To address the concerns of pregnant mothers and fathers in prison, the bill proposes several measures. These are:
- To determine the placement of prisoners, a Bureau of Prisons office should be established. This would “if the prisoner is a parent, place the child as near as the parents as possible.”
- Federal prisons are prohibited from housing pregnant prisoners or newly-given mothers in separate housing units “unless they present an immediate danger of harm to them or others”. This prohibition also requires that any placement be limited and temporary.
- Parenting classes are offered to those who are prisoners and the main caregiver for children.
- Training correctional officers and staff on “how to interact with children in an age-appropriate manner…basic childhood and adolescent development information; and basic customer service skills.”
The section contains other provisions to address specific health and hygiene issues of female prisoners. This includes an instruction to “ensure all prisoners have access (as appropriate) to a physician” and “ensure any prisoner who needs it.” [menstrual]Products are provided with a sufficient quantity by the prisoner. Inadequate supply of sanitary items has been a common complaint among incarcerated women in the U.S.
It also deals with strange restrictions regarding women visiting prisons during their periods. Some prisons ban women from wearing menstrual cups or tampons while they visit, fearing that contraband could be smuggled in. New VAWA will state that no prisoner can be visited by visitors who use sanitary items.
This bill will also cover general hygiene and other health needs. The bill would instruct correctional personnel on how to recognize and respond to trauma and provide free access to essential hygienic items, such as toothpaste, shampoo and toothbrushes.
In recent years, the female prison and prison population have been on the rise. It would of course be nicer if Congress would address some of the root causes of this—like the war on drugs and increasingly militant policing of prostitution—instead of tweaking the experience of people once they’re confined. It is important to take steps to improve the treatment of federal prisoners. The bill also mandates that the Bureau of Prisons track the population of female inmates, their reasons for being there and how long they have been held.
The ‘Consent Loophole is Closing’
A positive part of VAWA, “closing law enforcement consent loophole”, addresses the issue of sexual misconduct and assault perpetrated by federal law enforcement officers.
It does so by amending Section 2243 of the U.S. criminal code—a portion prohibiting “sexual abuse of a minor or ward”—to also include Federal authorities prohibit the use of sex in Federal custody.”
Section 2243 currently prohibits knowingly engaging in sexual activity with someone who is between ages 12–15, is in official detention, or is “under the custodial, supervisory, or disciplinary authority of the person so engaging.” The new VAWA will add an additional prohibition against anyone acting in their capacity of Federal law enforcement officers to “knowingly engage in a sexual act [with] someone who is under arrest or under supervision in detention or Federal custody.”
A law enforcement loophole section will also allow the U.S. attorneys general to give grants to any state making it a crime to act under the color of law. [doing so]You cannot use the consent of another person as a defence.”
The system would track the information collected on which reports were made to both federal and state law enforcement authorities and what was done in each case.
There is no more ‘boyfriend loophole’ provision
Talking of loopholes, a section in the failing 2021 reauthorization which Biden called the “boyfriend loophole”, has been removed.
This controversial proposal would have significantly expanded VAWA’s provisions and extended the term. Intimate partnerThis includes spouses, domestic partners and co-parents as well as any person who has ever been or is currently in a relationship of a romantic, intimate, or sexual nature with the victim.
This would have allowed the federal government, upon conviction of a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence (a wide category that includes “offensive touching”) to prohibit or ban firearm ownership.
The section in question was removed so that the larger package had a higher chance of passing.
From ‘Proarrest to ‘Offender Responsibility’
There are still plenty of problems with the VAWA reauthorization—including a language change that isn’t fooling anyone.
The VAWA is criticized for focusing money on law enforcement response to domestic violence. It has also made funding contingent upon police having “proarrest policy” or mandatory policies. Police are encouraged or required to arrest domestic disturbance reports.
In the beginning, VAWA preferred grant recipients who had policies that were consistent with VAWA’s principles. Mandatory arrestThis was changed later to policies. Encouragement or Mandatory arrest. These proarrest policies, however, can have a negative impact on the community and are often criticized. The latest version removes “proarrest” in a section that authorizes grants to “implement proarrest policies and programs in police departments.” But the substitute language appears to just be a more fancy way of saying it. Proarrest policies.
The grants will be used “to implement offenders accountability and homicide-reduction programs and policies within police departments.”
The VAWA’s latest version would eliminate the word “mandate”, meaning grants will be given to people who encourage or mandate domestic violence offenders.
The massive VAWA renewal would support or continue many of the negative aspects that were present in earlier iterations. But the bill’s focus on addressing violence against women by government actors—instead of simply seeing law enforcement officers as women’s saviors—is a small step in the right direction.