Beyond Punishment: What Really Matters About Chris Brown's Sentence

We need to ask what kind of sentence will help ensure Brown -- and men all over the country just like him -- never beats another woman.
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Today, millions of us will watch R&B star Chris Brown chat up Larry King after he receives his sentence for brutally beating his very famous girlfriend. Smart money says that King will put to him the question that captivated so many of us when his plea deal was announced in June: did the court let him off too easy? Once again, it will be the wrong question.

It's natural to want to see abusers punished. It's certainly preferable to watching them get off scot-free (as do over half those arrested for domestic violence every year, according to the National Institute of Justice). But if there's any silver lining to this whole awful incident, it's the way it's put relationship violence back in our public conversation. Given how infrequently that happens, we should be doing more than just be asking what kind of sentence Chris Brown deserves. We need to ask what kind of sentence will help ensure he -- and men all over the country just like him -- never beats another woman.

Abuser education programs got their start over 30 years ago. In that time, we've learned a lot about the factors that influence whether an abuser will reform or re-offend.

"All the research that's been done points to one consistent finding about batterer intervention, which is that the longer people stay in batterer intervention programs, the better they do," says David Adams, co-founder and Co-Director of Massachusetts-based Emerge, the very first batterer intervention in the country. That's good news for Brown, who was sentenced in California, the strictest state in the nation when it comes to length of mandated abuser education. He'll be required to complete an entire year's worth.

But what really may make the difference for Brown is a factor most programs sorely lack -- accountability. While all eyes will be on Brown as he completes his sentence, that's hardly the case for most abusers. In fact, few jurisdictions in the country have systems in place to enforce their own sentences when it comes to batterer intervention programs, resulting in a national noncompletion rate of about 50%. Given that abusers who fail to complete their court-mandated programs are more than twice as likely to reoffend than those who do, that's a gap which urgently needs addressing.

Why aren't we doing better? "There's a surprising lack of consistency across courts," says Adams, who works with judges and prosecutors to educate them about their key role in these cases. From state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, accountability depends all too often on individual judges "getting it" or not. Some jurisdictions are models of judicial follow-through, carefully tracking each convicted batterer's progress on their sentence -- and those districts have been proven to powerfully reduce rates of new violence by convicted batterers. But other judges don't even get to the point of tracking, declining to comply with their own state laws mandating certified batterer intervention programs for domestic violence offenders, and instead sending abusers to uncertified, shorter (and far, far less effective) anger management programs. Few of these judges ever face consequences, so we can hardly expect the batterers they sentence to be held to account.

There's a solution to this problem that is guaranteed to save the lives of women -- a standardized program in each state that would enforce our already-existing mandatory sentencing laws, track the progress of batterers through their programs, and refer those that drop out back to the courts to face increasing consequences. But none of this is likely to happen if states keep defunding the issue as many have in recent years (and nowhere more egregiously than Brown's home state of California, which just cut a devastating 100% of all state funding to domestic violence prevention and services). If we don't reverse these cuts, not only will we not see programs put in place that can stop batterers from striking again, but the existing shelters and other programs that save the lives of women every day will have to keep scaling back critical services, or close their doors for good.

This may seem like a tough-but-necessary measure in lean times, but it's actually costing us every day in lost wages and productivity, increased need for emergency responders, unpayable medical bills, and more -- in fact, the World Health Organization estimates that intimate partner violence costs the USA economy $12.6 billion every year. And that tally doesn't include the immeasurable cost to all of us when our mothers, sisters, and children -- even sometimes ourselves -- have to choose between living in terror or leaving our homes and communities.

If our collective outrage over Brown's violence toward a woman he claimed to love means anything besides an obsession with celebrity scandal, then we'll refuse to wash our hands of this issue when it leaves the headlines next week. Instead, let's hold our government and our justice system accountable the way we need that very system to hold batterers accountable -- beyond sentencing, until we see results.

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