By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania
There’s an old adage: you never know how you’ll react until it happens to you. I live by those words.
I’ve spent the last decade committed to improving the lives of two groups of people: women victimized by sexual violence, and youth of color impacted by racial bias in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Seems like they would go hand in hand, right? Wrong. In both my professional and my personal life I have constantly been faced with an impossible choice—who do I care about more—people of color or women?
Under current laws, if someone is a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence, or sexual exploitation, they only have one option: call the police and participate in prosecution to ensure your perpetrator goes to jail. But for many victims and survivors, justice does not mean locking someone up.
I am one of those survivors. A few years ago, a former boyfriend and I got into a verbal argument which turned physically violent. I worked closely with most of the domestic violence detectives in the area. If I had called the police, he would have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I chose not to.
My loved ones thought I was weak, and many of them lost respect for me. My co-workers worried I was setting a bad example for the young women who were my clients. Everyone around me felt my decision not to involve the police was driven out of fear and lack of self-worth. They could not fathom the truth. The truth? I didn’t call the police because for me, justice did not mean jail.
Every victim and survivor has different needs. I believe in restorative justice. What I needed was for my perpetrator to understand the harm he caused me and to receive the tools to deal with his anger in non-violent ways.
For me, justice did not mean sending my perpetrator into the criminal justice system, because our system prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation. We spend significantly more money incarcerating people than on education, mental health services, and reentry services for formerly incarcerated people. Maybe punishment is appropriate—but only when there is some semblance of fairness. He was a young man of color, which meant he was more likely to receive a disproportionately harsh sentence. It also meant that it would be harder for him to keep or find work because he would have a criminal record.
Unfortunately, the law does not allow victims to choose whether to involve the criminal justice system. If we want to access services, we are often required to involve the police. Many jurisdictions mandate that victims fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault cannot access emergency shelter unless they report the incident to the police, even when a police officer is the perpetrator. If a child victim of commercial sexual exploitation refuses to cooperate with a police investigation of her trafficker, she herself can be prosecuted for prostitution, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, or even trafficking of other minors. I know 17 year-olds who are sentenced to 25-year sentences simply because they were afraid or unwilling to testify against a perpetrator.
Many victims do need the protection of law enforcement, but they are penalized for seeking help. Many places have mandatory arrest laws, placing victims at a heightened risk of violence and even arrest. My colleagues at the ACLU have challenged town ordinances that encourage and require landlords to evict tenants when the police have been called to their homes for domestic disputes. Even when victims do agree to testify against perpetrators, they are not given enough protection during the course of a prosecution. I know child victims of sex trafficking who were attacked for agreeing to testify, even when they informed law enforcement that they felt unsafe. In the most tragic instance, one of these victims was killed for cooperating with the police.
Clearly, we need to do better. If we are going to address violence against women we have to imagine policies that focus on ending violence and supporting victims. Maybe it means harsher penalties for abusers. But maybe it also means more programs that teach non-violent conflict resolution in jails, police academies, and schools. My ability to receive help should not depend on whether or not I am not ready to send my perpetrator to jail, or face him in open court. It should depend on what I decide I need.
This is what justice looks like to me.
Maheen Kaleem is a Stoneleigh emerging leader fellow at the ACLU of PA. She holds a JD from Georgetown University Law Center and a Bachelors from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Prior to law school, Maheen served as a crisis responder and violence prevention worker to over 350 commercially sexually exploited children. Maheen is committed to promoting racial justice and ending gender-based violence.