The Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, May 15 signed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act into law that is meant to amend the penal law and the criminal procedure law in relation to sentencing and resentencing domestic violence cases.
The law would empower judges to take into consideration a person's history of being abused while sentencing them for their crimes.
This law is meant for defendants who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse with regard to their crimes against their abusers. What it means is that if a survivor is charged for a crime they committed against their abuser, the judge would now be able to consider their history of being abused as a mitigating factor before passing the sentence.
The judges would not need to stick to rigid sentencing guidelines and they can view the survivor’s past history to give shorter sentences or to alternative-to-incarceration programs. A more humane approach to sentencing would now be possible after this law comes into effect.
There have been a large number of cases where the survivor of domestic violence and abuse have offended against their abusers. These offenses, however, were considered crimes in and of themselves and the impact of their abusive history was not considered while sentencing them.
The fact that a history of abuse plays a great role in leading someone to commit a crime against the abuser was not a mitigating factor. The judges had to remain true to strict sentences which, it could be argued, may not have been completely fair or justified. This law would enable them to look at other alternatives while sentencing.
According to the law, the defendant must have been a victim of domestic violence ‘at the time’ of the offense. Secondly, domestic violence must have been a ‘significant contributing factor’ to the defendant’s offense. And thirdly, the defendant’s sentence under the current law was ‘unduly harsh’. These will be the considerations before the judge before sentencing.
The law does not protect defendants convicted of murder in the first degree, aggravated murder, sex offenses, and terrorism offenses. Further, defendants who want to file for re-sentencing under this law need to meet two conditions; the survivor needs to be currently incarcerated, and the original sentence has to be of 8 years or more.
The law is being hailed as one of the most progressive laws and its execution may pave way for reforming the justice system to be more responsive towards human rights. It is a step in the right direction as the criminal laws evolve over time to accommodate growing research and knowledge about factors which could have led to an offense. And most importantly, it could act as a beacon for other states to enable such laws for their citizens as well.