Politics & Law

Women and children first: It’s how liberals govern through crime

Jonathan Simon

Jonathan Weisman’s March 14 article in the NYTimes on the partisan battle over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (read the story here; read the act here, scroll down to Title IV) is a reminder of how Democrats found their voice on crime in the 1990s by placing women and children at the forefront of legislation bristling with harsh retributive penal elements, but wedded to a thin menu of thin welfarist benefits tied to crime victim identity. Back then it was mostly about getting Dems to sign on to a bill that expanded the federal death penalty and encouraged states to lock in long prison sentences. President Clinton signed it into law as part of his successful effort to replace failure on health care with success on largely symbolic crime legislation.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, himself an OG Republican crime warrior, called the politics about right for the current round of partisan skirmishing:

“I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who opposed the latest version last month in the Judiciary Committee. “You think that’s possible? You think they might have put things in there we couldn’t support that maybe then they could accuse you of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?”

By placing a few “poison pill” elements favoring undocumented immigrants, or LGBT people (so long as they are crime victims), Dems can build their brand as both tough on crime and concerned about immigrants and women (although not enough to deliver on immigration reform, or reproductive rights protection, or even fight for same), while appearing to outflank Republicans in protecting women and children from violent crime.

In California the same mid 1990s moment produced Cal Penal Code Section 1160(a) (read it here) requiring health providers to turn over to law enforcement the identities of individuals for whom they have provided professional health care service if the wound or injury was caused by a host of criminal actions, including “assaultive and abusive actions.” The measure was typical of many aimed at intensifying enforcement of domestic violence but it was invoked by the University of California Berkeley’s Tang Health Care center to explain why they turned over the names of students who were seen for injuries caused by being assaulted by the police on November 9, 2011, to the police. These seem to have played some role in allowing the Alameda County DA (SHAME) to charge a number of victims (of police violence) who were not arrested on November 9th.

Children and their safety was also in the news this week when U.S. Attorney Melissa Haag cited the safety of children as instrumental in her successful pressure on a Berkeley property owner to shut down Berkeley’s highly touted (and legal under state law) marijuana dispensary, the Berkeley Patients Group (BPG). AS quoted on the KQED Blog (here):

We’ve sent letters to a number of dispensaries and we certainly hear back from most if not all of them, or lawyers representing them. And one thing we’ve heard in response is that this is a good dispensary. This is a dispensary that’s patient-run, or they consider themselves to be a good actor in the marijuana space. And I hear them, but I have a hard time making that distinction. I’ve already drawn a line. I’ve already made a distinction. If it’s close to children then that’s a line we’re going to draw. If I then start trying to get in and figure out which ones are quote good or not, it’s just not something I’m capable of doing. So I’ve decided to draw this line, and to keep that line fairly bright.

No doubt fears of robbery are not far fetched, but the fact that the dispensary has a reputation as being a source of crime preventing traffic in an otherwise darkened section of San Pablo, and as one of the industry leaders in being a source of harm reduction and good neighborliness, was given no account nor consideration of finding ways to extend their already effective crime prevention activities (keep in mind this is a Berkeley neighborhood in which gang shootings have occurred which had nothing to do with BPG).

For those of us old enough to remember Attorney General Janet Reno’s invocation of the need to protect children in her justification for the botched Waco raid against the Branch Davidians (which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 20 children) one can only hope that the Feds feel no need to preemptively protect Berkeley’s school children.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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