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 carceral 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 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 contraceptives, 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.”
This bill will take many steps to meet the needs of pregnant women and parents who are incarcerated. They include:
- 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 placing pregnant prisoners or newly-given mothers in separate housing units “unless they present an immediate danger of harm to them or others”. This is also required to require that any placement be “limited, temporary”
- Parenting classes are offered to those who are the primary caregiver for children in prison.
- 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 to “ensure any prisoner that requires this service.” [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.
This measure addresses strange rules about visitors who have periods. Some prisons prohibit women with tampons and menstrual cup from visiting because they could be used for contraband smuggling. 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.
Recent decades have seen an explosion in the number of female prisoners and jail population. 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. However, it is beneficial to make sure that federal prisons are treated better. This bill mandates the Bureau of Prisons to keep better records of who is in jail, what they were doing, where and when.
The ‘Consent Loophole is Closing’
The VAWA also addresses sexual misconduct by federal law enforcers and their assaults.
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.” This new VAWA adds a ban on any Federal law enforcement officer “acting as such” in order to not “invoke a sexual act in the presence of an individual under arrest, in supervision, in custody or in 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]It is forbidden to assert the consent or defense of an individual.
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.
The ‘Boyfriend Loophole Provision’ is over
Referring to loopholes: The 2022 version has removed a section from the failed 2021 authorization that Biden had called the “boyfriend Loophole”.
The controversial act would have greatly expanded VAWA’s provisions, by extending the term. Partner of intimacyIt covers spouses, domestic partner, and co-parents. However, it also includes any “person who is/has been in a sexual relationship of an intimate or romantic nature” with an alleged victim.
This would have allowed the federal government, upon conviction of misdemeanor crimes 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.
One of the biggest criticisms about the VAWA is that it directs funds primarily towards law enforcement actions to domestic violence. Grant money has been made contingent upon mandatory police or “proarrest” 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. OrdainmentLater, this became policies. Encourage or mandat. arrest. These proarrest policies, however, can have a negative impact on the community and are often criticized. Maybe that is why the new version of the bill strikes “proarrest,” from a section authorizing grants for “proarrest programs, policies in police department.” The replacement language is, however, a fancy way to say the same thing. Proarrest policies.
Grants would be used to “implement offender accountability, homicide prevention 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.
Overall, however, massive VAWA authorization would either continue or increase many of the harmful carceral aspects of prior 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.