An Assistant District Attorney I recently met over coffee noted that every time he prosecutes crimes of domestic violence, he knows he is preventing many other crimes. I asked what he meant. He said that almost every perpetrator he’s worked with has one thing in common: a childhood ravaged by violence. The children hiding in the bedroom while dad strangles mom too often grow up into the car thieves and assault perpetrators of today.
This is not just one prosecutor’s hypothesis. While child development researchers might argue over the best car seat or vitamins for kids, the data is clear on one thing: Exposure to domestic violence devastates children. The World Health Organization states that children who witness violence in the home are just as likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning home from war. Research from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies shows that children exposed at an early age to trauma, including domestic violence, have a smaller hippocampus – the brain area related to learning and memory formation. And unfortunately, the cycle continues from there. According to UNICEF, the single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether or not they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence.
Alaska leads the nation in domestic violence. More than half of Alaska’s women have experienced either domestic or sexual violence. No other state has a higher rate of men who murder women. Unfortunately, that means we lead the nation in traumatized children as well.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. There will be marches and speeches and calls for greater awareness. Here at No More Free Passes, however, we propose something different. We propose action. We call on Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature to pass domestic violence legislation that stiffens penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence — particularly perpetrators who have a pattern of prior abuse, who assault pregnant women and who commit domestic violence in the presence of children.
While incarceration alone is not an effective solution to crime in general, in cases of domestic violence, jail time serves a unique purpose. Domestic violence is one of the few crimes where the victim is almost always the same person for repeat offenses. While a car thief will rarely return to the same parking lot, a domestic abuser has a fixation on keeping his particular victim entrapped.
Domestic violence has a higher rate of recidivism (re-offending) than almost any other crime. A 2018 University of Alaska Anchorage study stated “Among DV offenders, 41% recidivated in the first year after release. By the second year, 54% had recidivated and by the third year, 62%. By the eighth year, approximately 75% of offenders in this cohort had recidivated.” Domestic violence is one of the most predictable crimes—the offender will almost certainly reoffend against the same victim, and if that victim has children, those children will be retraumatized. Thus, in addition to being punitive and potentially rehabilitative, jail time for domestic violence is also protective.
As a social worker, I have worked with countless victims of domestic abuse. While I worked hard to connect them with housing, counseling and financial resources, their abuser was usually out of jail and moving back in before we could make any real progress. Misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence usually carry about 20-30 days of jail time — hardly enough time to get a new lease, let alone break the psychological hold the abuser has on the victim. So even when incarceration fails to rehabilitate the perpetrator, it guarantees one thing: safety for the victim and the children. Every month spent in jail is a month where many children get their first chance to live in a home without violence.
Domestic violence is stealing Alaska’s future. Instead of preparing a robust, healthy workforce, we are producing broken children. Our rates of crime, addiction and homelessness will never improve until we stop the problem at the cradle. This month, we call on our leaders to replace awareness with action. The children are watching. Let’s get to work and set things right.
Elizabeth Williams, founder of nonprofit activism group No More Free Passes, is a social worker in Anchorage.
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