While visiting a women’s prison in 1989 to produce a video for the inmates and their children, Art & Design Prof. Carol Jacobsen was struck by what she saw — or rather, what she didn’t see.
The women in the prison — many serving life sentences — weren’t violent, career criminals or drug-addicts as popular culture would have Jacobsen believe. Rather, they were often victims themselves, mistreated by the society that had sent them away.
Following that visit in 1989, Jacobsen created the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, an organization that works to free women in prison convicted of murder but who acted in self-defense against an abuser.
In 2000, according to statistics from the United States Justice Department, 25 percent of women said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner or date at some point in their lifetime. That’s one in four — which equates to roughly 3,222 female undergraduates out of the 12,889 enrolled at the University during Fall 2012.
Broken bones and bruised skin are, unfortunately, not the end of the story. Women are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse, accounting for 85 percent of the victims of intimate partner violence. The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is two to six years; for the women who kill their partners, the average sentence is 15 years. Approximately 90 percent of women in prisons in the United States have been victims of domestic or intimate partner violence.
For the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, and Jacobsen, these are statistics in need of change.
“I discovered who the so-called ‘murderers’ are in our U.S. women’s prisons,” Jacobsen said of her first visit to the prison. “Most (women) acted for their own survival, and I was shocked and hooked for good.”
Jacobsen began working with Lynn D’Orio, an Ann Arbor-based criminal and family attorney, in 1994 and the two began visiting women in prison and writing clemency petitions to free some of them.
So far, they, and a slew of rotating volunteers and interns, have helped secure the freedom of nine women who would otherwise have served life sentences. In the first week of October this year, they sent 10 petitions to Gov. Rick Snyder to help women in similar situations.
Writing a petition to the government can take months. Jacobsen and her team meet with women whose cases have a chance to be petitioned, or those that offer clear evidence of domestic abuse and that the abuse played a factor in the crime. They then collect medical and court records, previous petitions and even letters from family members, attesting to the character of the women.
Victoria Adams, a graduate student in the School of Public Health, interned for the project over the summer to gain experience in legal advocacy for victims of sexual assault. She helped Jacobsen research and interview the 10 women whose petitions were sent to Lansing.
Beyond the resiliency of the women she met, Adams said the most surprising aspects of working with the project were the inconsistencies and unfairness she encountered in the legal system. The discrepancies in conviction rates served as a wake-up call.
“I think a lot of times (the judges) see themselves in the men who are involved in the crime, or just the men in general,” she said. “I think knowing (the victim) might be what leads them to much higher conviction in women, and much more leniency in men.”
D’Orio, who acts as the legal director for the project, explained the discrepancy more bluntly.
“It’s sexism. Plain and simple,” D’Orio said. “Women aren’t supposed to be violent. But there are violent women.”
But what would drive a woman to kill her partner? Holly Rider-Milkovich, the director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said while there’s no definitive answer to the question, a lack of resources and support is almost certainly at the heart of the issue.
“For women who have killed their partners, because they’re in imminent threat of their lives, that is so many times the resort that they came to because there were no other options, because the system failed them,” Rider-Milkovich said.
Fortunately, the system has improved. Over the last 40 years, Michigan state law has attempted to address domestic abuse in supportive and responsive ways. This includes the creation of shelters as well as the passing of various laws — including legalizing the use of deadly force to protect oneself from an attempted sexual assault and banning marital rape — and better education for police officers, judges and legislators on how to handle a domestic-abuse situation.
Rider-Milkovich said the number of women imprisoned for killing their abusers has decreased dramatically during the same period, with women escaping an abusive relationship in non-violent ways.
But according to the project, there is much more to be done. Jacobsen and D’Orio believe the state should provide more resources to domestic abuse victims, as well as women in prison. They also recommend Michigan institute a Habeas law like one on the books in California which would allow abused women to apply for special clemency.
D’Orio specifically advocates for a change in the state Sentencing Guidelines that would allow previous domestic abuse to be taken into consideration to help mitigate the punishment.
“They look for all the bad marks and don’t look for anything that might explain it,” D’Orio said of the current guidelines. “Self-defense law needs to be changed or additional instructions should be given to juries.”
Rider-Milkovich recommends a preferred-arrest policy in place of the current mandatory arrest policy. Under the current policy, the abuser or the victim of abuse can be arrested, and often police will arrest both parties if it is not absolutely clear who is at fault.
A preferred-arrest policy would fix this problem, according to professionals like Rider-Milkovich, because police would have more discretion on who to arrest, if anyone. As Rider-Milkovich explained, the abuser in the vast majority of domestic abuse situations is the male partner.
She also recommends the implementation of more women’s shelters and courses in prison.
While she agrees that the state law has made significant strides in recent years, Rider-Milkovich said there are still many women in prison for crimes committed before the legal system caught up.
“We can feel really good about the progress we’ve made as a society and it’s easy to forget those women who were left behind in the system … because they’re in prison and they’re away from our minds and away from our sight,” Rider-Milkovich said. “It ends up impacting women who are invisible to us as a society.”
For now, the futures of the 10 women Jacobsen submitted petitions for are all but certain.
“We are grateful that Governor (Jennifer) Granholm granted as many clemencies as she did, and angry that they were so few, so politically safe and so racially unfair,” Jacobsen said. “We hope that Governor Snyder will support clemency for more women who did not receive fair trials based on the facts of their cases.”
Granholm could not be reached for comment.
D’Orio is hopeful that the Snyder administration will offer more support for the project than previous administrations, though she admits she has no idea how the scene will play out.
“We’re showing the governor a personalized story and saying ‘This person’s life should be spared,’ ” she said. “That’s a lot of work.”