Friday, June 26, 2020

Aya Gruber's "The Feminist War on Crime"

Aya Gruber is Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School. A former public defender, she is a frequent commentator on criminal justice issues. She has appeared on ABC, NBC, and PBS, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, Denver Post, and Associated Press.

Gruber applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women's Liberation in Mass Incarceration, and reported the following:
Page 99 examines the American crime victims’ rights movement, a late-twentieth century social and political movement that played a significant role in feminism’s turn to criminal law. It appears in chapter four (The Weapon: Ideal Victims), which differs from the other chapters in that it does not tell the story of a particular feminist battle against crime. Rather, it discuss how feminist reformers and victim’s rights activists in the 1980s, sometimes working in tandem, centered “blameless,’ innocent, usually attractive, middle class, and white” women in reform advocacy, with the effect of broadening and strengthening a penal state that disproportionately burdened poor people of color. Conservative lawmakers juxtaposed this victim image with “the image of scary brown men to frighten voters into believing that crime, not lack of stable employment or income, was the main problem to be addressed by government.”

On page 99, I observe that the victims’ rights movement theoretically emphasized protecting victims from an uncaring prosecutorial system, but in practice it became about accruing more power to prosecutors and undermining defendants’ rights:
In principle, the movement was about serving the victims caught up in a stressful bureaucratic criminal system and not about unilaterally strengthen­ing law enforcement. However, even in the early years, victims’ rights organi­zations did not champion the interests of victims who wanted to avoid the criminal system altogether. This may have had something to do with the organizations’ composition. Gottschalk notes that “activists in victims’ organizations tended to be overwhelmingly White, female, and middle-aged—a group demographic that is hardly representative of crime victims in gen­eral.” She goes on, “These activists generally were more supportive of the death penalty and of the police, prosecutors, and judges than were victims not active in these organizations.” So, in theory, victims’ rights are not synonymous with crime control. But as legal scholar Markus Dubber observes, “As a matter of fact, the vindication of victims’ rights has every­thing to do with the war on crime.”
The book, as a whole, recounts the complicated role feminism played in the formation the modern American penal state, and suggests how contemporary feminists can disentangle gender justice aims from the law enforcement apparatus. I am not sure that one could discern those aims from page 99. Nevertheless, the victim’s rights movement was key to late twentieth century feminists’ emphasis on criminal reform and the success of those reforms. Moreover, in this moment of intense worldwide activism demanding a radical reimagining of the role of policing and punishment in society, it is important to understand how essentialist notions of female victimhood historically have been used to maintain the U.S. prison state. In response to current calls to defund the police, many ask, often rhetorically, “What about rape and domestic violence?” Chapter four exposes that the claim that female victims invariably demand policing and punishment—a claim frequently made by feminists in the past—is not an obvious truth but a narrative rooted in racialized tough-on-crime politics.
Learn more about The Feminist War on Crime at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue