Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor and mother of three, was allowed to return home to her children Tuesday after nearly three years in jail for firing a warning shot to fend off an attack from her abusive estranged husband. She faced upwards of 60 years in prison, despite the fact that the shot harmed no one and was issued in defense of her life.
But Marissa’s early release isn’t true justice. Nor is her close call with a near-life sentence some mishap that could happen only in Florida’s courts.
For four years – three spent in prison and one under house arrest – Marissa had been fighting a losing battle for her freedom. She had three strikes against her the second she pulled that trigger: she is black, she is a woman, and she is a domestic violence survivor.Countless before her, and sure to be countless after her, have fallen victim to a criminal justice system that rabidly throws people of color, women, and survivors of domestic violence into prison. Given that we’ve taken to criminalizing these women for trying to protect themselves or for “failure to protect” their children from a domestic abuser – as in the case of Tondalo Hall, another black woman incarcerated in Oklahoma – it isn’t entirely surprising that Marissa was so harshly targeted by overzealous state prosecutor Angela Corey.
In fact, women make up the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States, where the incarceration rate is greater than in countries like Rwanda, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The population of women in prison has exploded in the last three decades by more than 800 percent–double that of men.
Two-thirds of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Seventy-five percent of them are survivors of domestic violence, too many of whom are in prison for self-defense while their abusers are given lesser punishments.
While white women are more often treated as victims in domestic abuse cases and referred to services for help, women of color end up incarcerated as criminals and now make up the majority of the women in prison. Further, immigrant women face the additional threat of deportation or detainment if they report abuse.
Marissa and her family are undoubtedly relieved that she is on her way home, but her freedom is bittersweet and likely increasingly difficult as time passes.
Marissa is now a convicted felon – a label she’ll carry with her through every job application and rent application, and robs her of her right to vote in Florida. Not to mention her “release” is conditioned on two more years of house arrest. All because she tried to fend off a man who sent her to the hospital bloodied and threatened to kill her in front of his children.
Marissa’s case plainly tells us that we value the lives of domestic violence survivors less than their abusers. Far too many women, mostly women of color, are in prison instead of their abusers for the Catch-22 of either protecting themselves or failing to protect their families. There is no winning for women experiencing domestic abuse in our criminal justice system, and that is a problem.
In our justice system, the life of a repeat violent offender who claimed to have “stood his ground,” who roams the streets with a gun and one day decides that a black seventeen year old child in a hoodie with candy in his pockets deserves to die, matters more than either the life of that child or the life of Marissa Alexander.
No, this isn’t justice. And neither is it for the other thousands of black and brown women who decided their lives matter enough to seek an escape from domestic violence, only to be told they’re wrong.
Nita Chaudhary is the cofounder of UltraViolet, and Rashad Robinson is the executive director of Color of Change.