Battered Women Doing Time: Injustice in the Criminal Justice System
Author: Rachel Zimmer Schneider
Publisher: Boulder, CO: First Forum Press, 2013. 153p.
Reviewer: Donileen R. Loseke | November 2014
Criminal justice system responses to women who kill their abusive partners has been a continuing concern of advocates who repeatedly have detailed the gender bias in law surrounding self-defense, as well as criticizing the practice of law for not adequately accounting for the consequences of the battered woman’s syndrome. The latter is a post-traumatic stress disorder that can lead an abused woman to such fear that killing her abuser seems the only route to safety. Rachel Zimmer Schneider steps into these long standing concerns with a study comparing the experiences of women prisoners who were granted clemency by the State of Ohio with other women who were denied it. Based on interview data, the book is arranged into eight chapters — each focusing on an aspect of the women’s experiences. Beginning with a chapter containing short descriptions of the abuse suffered, it moves to short descriptions of the immediate circumstances surrounding the killings and the handling by the criminal justice system. Then it turns to women’s experiences inside prison and the experiences of those denied clemency and those granted clemency. Final chapters make comparisons between women who were and who were not granted clemency, and conclude with advocating criminal justice system change. The book contains many quotes from women about their experiences, and thus it might be a good way to introduce students to the complex issues surrounding the life experiences and the criminal justice processing of women who kill their abusive partners.
This study does not add much to the scholarly understanding because it does not engage the existing literature and offers only a surface level of analysis. The primary references are to other books containing stories of abused women who kill; there is no sustained attention to the intricacies of all criminal processing nor to the considerable literature debating and exploring multiple dimensions of the “battered woman’s defense.” We learn, for example, that abuse often starts in childhood, that women often suffer multiple forms of abuse, that entrapment in abusive relationships can be psychological, social, and economic. This is not new. We also learn that women released from prison have a difficult time finding housing and employment, that there can be problems re-establishing connections with their children, and that there is little in prison that helps to “rehabilitate” prisoners. This is also not new, and furthermore, these experiences are not specific to women who kill their abusers, nor are they even gender specific. In the same way, the chapter comparing those who were granted clemency with those who were not is uninformed by the literature on court processing in general, or on court processing associated with the “battered woman’s defense” in particular. In sum, there is much to complain about with how the criminal justice system responds to women who kill abusive partners. This book is good for reminding us of the complexity of women’s experiences, but it is not so good at advancing the conversation about what can be done.
Donileen R. Loseke, Professor of Sociology, University of South Florida