Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor, Suggestions for Reform – A Book Review by Nadia Zaman
by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK
Book Review by Nadia Zaman:
‘Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor, Suggestions for Reform’ by Michelle Kaminsky.
Nadia Zaman is a Barrister, and was Called to the Bar at Lincolns Inn.
She is currently researching domestic violence issues in the UK in particular for her Phd.
Michelle Kaminsky takes the reader through an empirical journey in which she reminiscences on the last 20 years as a domestic violence prosecutor.
She does not hesitate in descriptively narrating cases in which she was involved with, some of which are the most horrific crimes committed between parties in intimate relationships. With every case, Kaminsky describes how the brutal reality of domestic violence becomes more dramatic, especially where the defendants of such crimes are let off and set free to re-offend again.
Kaminsky’s documents her first exposure to domestic violence in a working environment, whilst working at the Domestic Violence Bureau. Kaminsky is sympathetic to the cause of domestic violence, and the affects it has on its victims, but I feel she consciously fails to engage with the feminist critique on domestic violence, largely through her dismissive stance as to the lack of power of the female victim, whom do not pursue criminal charges against their abusive partners which she criticises in her book.
The author acknowledges the positive evolution in the American criminal justice system and societal attitudes over the past 20 years in treating domestic violence as a serious problem and closely considers legislative and judicial reforms on a national and state level, in treating battering, for example, as a serious crime. However, Kaminsky reflects and accepts that such development in legislative reform has neither reduced domestic violence, nor brought any meaningful change to the situation of its victims, and she blames the legal domain surrounding domestic violence for disallowing the partial reduction if not eradication of this crime, and labels the latter as an embarrassing and serious problem affecting society as a whole.
In considering domestic violence as a complex social issue, she describes the feminist, psychological and sociological perspective of domestic violence.
The sociologist perspective towards domestic violence is interesting. Social conflict theory dictates that the resultant domestic violence act is due to a power struggle between genders due to improper gender socialization. Kaminsky vividly illustrates that the act of battering can be seen as an act of power and exercising control and the element of physical abuse can be seen as a moment of exerting power on the subordinate party.
There is a consensus between the feminist perspectives, that women involved in domestic violence cases as victims, suffer as a result of gender inequality. Although advocates of feminist theory accept that women can also be violent within a relationship with a man, the issue of the female mistreating the man is not a serious social problem and therefore does not demand a huge amount of attention or consideration as violence against the woman, which is seen as a severe social wrong.
The main limitation to the feminist theory is that it fails to highlight the suffering of a male victim in a domestic violence case. It is not enough to set aside the latter by denoting gender inferiority of the female partner and self defence on her part being reasonable. Here, Kaminsky shows she had a problem in one particular case, where she was prosecuting the male defendant, but the female ‘victim’ of this case was not a typical weak character often associated with victims of such crimes. Kaminsky discusses how her client was equally aggressive within the relationship, and that the jury held the victim equally responsible for her own suffering. This is largely due to the reasoning that if we confront the agency or victimisation dictum which asserts that a person is the agent of their own destiny, as Kaminsky puts it, ‘operating with free will and choice’, then the jury, Kaminsky acknowledges, can be forgiven for acquitting the defendant. However, Kaminsky highlights that each case should be considered on its own merits, and the complex nature of human relationships and individual duress in staying within a violent relationship should be met with empathy rather than criticism.
Domestic violence abuse therefore requires a more widespread analysis and theoretical clarification and needs to go further than the feminist perspective, so that the whole picture can be metaphorically seen as to where the problem lies and how to combat the serious issue of domestic violence. Although Kaminsky touches on the different perspectives and how it fits into her own understanding of domestic violence, this book would have benefitted from explaining the different standpoints on domestic violence in more depth, as it would afford the reader in particular to familiarise himself with such notions surrounding the subject matter, which would in turn allow the reader to continually evaluate the significance of such perspectives and relating it to Kaminsky’s account of cases she was exposed to through her journey.
Kaminsky suggests many reforms in this book, from taking a multi State approach, and encouraging law makers in changing the laws of evidence and admissibility of evidence in particular in such cases, where a previous domestic violence episode it not admissible in Court for consideration, or the notion that specialist Judges should be selected for such cases rather than administrative Judges. However, Kaminsky only slightly touches on the need for a working model to be implemented where the victim’s needs are addressed through a multi agency approach where differing support systems are in place to help the victim. Such models are successful in other countries, such as the UK, where the Government has introduced a Code of Practice for Victims of Crime: Primarily, this code sets out what the victim can expect from the Criminal Justice System in the UK, such as a right to information about their crime, including the right to be notified about any arrests and court cases, all victims are to be told of and offered the Victim Support Service.
Moreover, the CPS in the UK, established a network of domestic violence coordinators in 2001 in an attempt to prosecute cases more efficiently. As a result, every CPS region has a dedicated coordinator directly responsible for domestic violence cases, working alongside other agencies in an attempt to implement the CPS Policy Code for Domestic Violence, by meeting regularly addressing existing and potential problems and sharing good practice approaches, all with the best interests of the victim in mind. I believe this is what Kaminsky wants in terms of a multi agency, or ‘back up’ approach, but does not explain this in detail and leaves the reader wandering whether she has thought about potential reforms in the US in depth.
This book is successful in helping the reader to comprehend the problems of the criminal justice system in criminalising domestic violence effectively, and suggesting reforms that would bring changes and thus prevent such tragic crimes. This book is well written and insightful and clearly demonstrates that domestic violence is not a new phenomenon but is a serious social, mental health issue. It has many implications not only for the victim, but the offender and other family members involved and should be taken seriously by everyone in society.
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