California Senate Bills do little to help victims of sexual violence requesting parole
By Lilliana Paratore and Sara Kruzan
In this post-#MeToo era, it is common knowledge that women experience sexual harassment and abuse at staggering rates, and that these experiences are all too often left unvoiced or unaddressed. For women in prison, the problem is even greater. One study shows that between 40% and 93% of incarcerated women experienced intimate partner violence prior to incarceration. Moreover, 68-86% of women who are incarcerated report surviving sexual violence in their lifetime. Unfortunately, these experiences of gender-based violence as children and adults can be tied to an increased risk of future victimization, and of future perpetration of violence. As many women who commit crimes of violence do so either to protect themselves from abuse or as a part of abusive relationships.
For women going through the parole consideration process, these experiences are inadequately addressed, despite the fact that some statutes apply. In 2000, California enacted Senate Bill 499, codified as Penal Code section 4801, which required that the parole board “consider” evidence indicating that “at the time of the commission of the crime, the prisoner had suffered from battered woman syndrome…” In 2005, California passed Assembly Bill (AB) 220, which amended Penal Code section 4801 to reference “intimate partner battering” instead of “battered woman syndrome,” in order to keep pace with changed understandings of what intimate partner battering encompasses. “Intimate partner batter- ing and its effects” includes “evidence of the nature and effects of physical, emotional, or mental abuse upon the beliefs, perceptions, or behavior of victims of domestic violence if it appears the criminal behavior was the result of that victimization.” In 2012, California passed AB 1593, mandating that the parole board “give great weight” to intimate partner battering and its effects, rather than merely “consider” it as required by the original 2000 statute. Additionally, section 4801 was amended to explicitly provide that the fact that a prisoner presents evidence of abuse may not be used by the parole authority to support a finding that the prisoner lacks insight into the crime. While this special parole consideration has been an available avenue for relief for almost two decades, no California case law addresses the manner in which the Board must consider this evidence, nor have the courts defined the meaning of “great weight” in this context.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a parole attorney representing incarcerated women before the Board, these laws have little weight or meaning. The Board only understands these laws as applying to women who have killed their abusive partners, rather than as applying to women who have experienced a range of intimate partner violence that impacted their pathways to crime more broadly. This is born out in the numbers as well, as between 2011 and 2017, only 32 cases were investigated by the Board, and of those, only six were fully substantiated. This leaves countless women without relief in the parole context, despite the fact that so many women attribute many of their “causative factors” and “character defects” to experiences of gender-based trauma and abuse. -L.P.
…to Live The Experience
It is concerning for incarcerated per- sons, especially women aware of our “causative factors” and “character defects” being related to or are rooted in experiences of gender-based trauma and abuse. I am one of those women. My trauma and abuse experienced prior to my act of violence against George, who sexually trafficked me, was very present when I committed the act of violence that took his life.
The trauma and abuse inflicted upon me by others was a very personal experience of being silenced. A very personal experience of being sexually assaulted repeatedly. A very personal experience of being raped. A very personal experience of being trafficked, victimized, and degraded by numerous forms of violence. All of this was my personal experience and was as ever present the day I was arrested for murder. However, no matter how personal the experiences, far too many women have shared in the experiences.
Unfortunately, my “causative factors” and “character defects” were not taken into account for a rehabilitative plan as I prepared for a life sentence as a youth tried as an adult. I was lost in an invisibility of the criminal justice system. What if someone saw me? What if there was an act of compassion and rehabilitation within our criminal justice system from the very beginning one comes into contact with it? A warm hand off between institutions as opposed to a cold negligent and reckless hand off. Negligent handoffs fit under the umbrella of harmful behavior for me.
My experiences of integrated and concentrated violence while incarcerated left me many times with an uncertainty within an undefined bravery to continue on an undefined road. There weren’t any programs within Central California Women’s Facility, which covered the healing for child sex trafficking, compounded sexual trauma, and abuse. There was Domestic Violence Support Group, but for me, it only addressed a percentage of my “causative factors” and “character defects”.
I wish California’s parole board procedures were rooted in a therapeutic model with values rooted in healing, restoration, dignity and safety for all. I was so intimidated by the appearance alone within the parole board, having to share and discuss some of my most dehumanizing experiences with strange men, triggered memories of other moments I was with strange men and being dehumanized.
As I presented in front of the parole board, its very design shrunk my being. However, in a space structured to exude enveloping power, the simple act of kindness by Commissioner Zinnernam created a sense of dignity for me. A dignity and act of human kindness, an experience that will forever be etched within my core. I was asked to state my name and spell it. I leaned into the table, stretching my neck to the microphone and barely reaching the microphone. Zinnernam came down from his authoritarian bench and pulled the microphone closer to me. In that moment, the system acknowledged what I had to say was worthy of being heard and I felt a sense of dignity by a system, whose only drive was to oppress and punish me. Despite the structures of a criminal justice system etched in violence, there are endless opportunities to create moments for humanization; for sharing pockets of safety, connection, healing and hope. People will forget what one does. People will forget what one says. One does not ever forget how they are left to feel. Experiencing a ripple effect, which impacted my drive to continue to give in the smallest way holds a valuable life lesson. A lesson bringing awareness to the power of an act of kindness I experienced while in my parole hearing. An underscoring of personal choice to walk along others to contribute to a healing change for overall wellness.
The parole process for me, as a survivor of violent crimes, as an offender who committed an act of violence, as a woman of color sentenced to life without parole, held a belief through re-humanizing what one may be afraid of, healing happens on many levels and we can redesign our institutions to reflect dignity, safety and compassion as we aim for community wellness. -S.K.