By Emma Schulman
She swings her scale as courtroom voices echo. In courtrooms across the country stands a figure of Lady Justice. The lady is a figure of hope to many, but some find her to be the exact opposite. Despite the fact that the scales in a courtroom are supposed to be balanced, many survivors of gender-based violence, like rape, domestic violence, and human [sex] trafficking, etc., find that the scale is often uneven. Myths about gender-based violence, self-defense, and what it means to be a survivor can all affect courtroom outcomes. Outcomes that rule against survivors can often leave their lives marked permanently. When the punishment falls on the survivors instead of the perpetrator, it can leave them with a criminal record that can affect their job prospects. If the court finds the perpetrator not guilty, it can leave survivors with the sense that they are at fault for what happened to them.
People’s presumptions about victims of abuse, along with the lack of education about this issue and bias, can create a perfect storm that can make it hard for survivors to get justice. These biases can also make it hard for survivors to get the resources like psychological treatment, restraining orders, protections, and survival basics that they need.
I sat down with Jennifer Long, one of the co-founders of Aequitas to learn more about the issues that survivors face. Aequitas was founded in 2009 with the mission of enhancing the quality of justice and increasing access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, stalking and human trafficking.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Emma Schulman: Why don’t you begin by telling me how you got involved with Aequitas?
JL: Aequitas was created to be a necessary resource for prosecutors, primarily within the United States but also internationally.
Victims of these crimes are so often blamed for their own victimization. They should have access to not only highly capable prosecutors, but compassionate prosecutors that understand how to work with them and how devastating the crimes are. We created Aequitas as the only national organization that would primarily focus on these crimes. Prior to co-founding Aequitas, I was the director at the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence against Women at the American Prosecutors Research Institute and prior to that, I was a prosecutor in Philadelphia where I served in the family violence sexual assault unit.
ES: I volunteered at an organization that helps sex trafficking survivors through a job program. While I was there I learned that a lot of survivors get arrested for prostitution.
How do you think prosecutors handle these cases? Maliciously? Or do they just not understand?
JL: Overwhelmingly, those who are arrested for prostitution-related crimes are individuals who are sexually exploited and involved in the sex trade. Any act where you’re prosecuting, arresting, criminalizing – not only does it push them deeper into sexual exploitation, it gives them a criminal history.
[This can affect their careers and as a result their financial security. If they have less job and financial security, they’re more likely to turn to crime.]
There may be some certain circumstances where someone has engaged in crime and it’s appropriate to prosecute them. [Before prosecuting] you really wanna think about their status as a trafficking victim and their particular circumstances of the offense.
ES: I feel like you somewhat touched on this. What do you notice about the way that these women are treated?
JL: They are severely disrespected and degraded –and we see this a lot in sexual violence cases even in present day, where you will have rapes minimized or victims’ credibility challenged. Prosecutors will allege that victims have actually engaged in an exchange. And it’s an offensive belief that somehow someone in this extreme situation is not deserve of being protected by the law.
ES: What rights do you think survivors should be aware of?
JL: Knowing where and how to find advocates and other support. That can help you. That can help protect you in the extreme circumstances where you’re wrongfully arrested or charged.
I think it helps raise their expectations of how they should be treated. So that they understand that they’re not being treated with respect if they’re degraded.
ES: Do you think our domestic violence laws are effective currently?
JL: I don’t want to misstate, but if there’s obviously some sort of specification in the law that only protects domestic partners living together, unmarried partners, or partners of a particular gender obviously, that’s an area where I think the law has a weakness. But generally, I think domestic violence cases, they’re similar to sexual violence cases and human trafficking as well, which is that the problem is not the law that is unavailable, but the failure of the available laws to be implemented to protect survivors.
It could be a bias against a survivor. Sometimes there’s a racial component to it; a lot of times it’s again a misunderstanding of the dynamics of these crimes or affective behavior and that causes a decision-maker to not use the laws in front of them to help protect the survivor. And although sometimes I think the laws are identified as a crutch, it is very rarely the law that’s the issue.
[Even though there are laws on the books to protect people the laws are not always applied correctly. Sometimes that’s the result of a homophobic or racial bias.]
ES: What role do you think judges have to play in this?
JL: I think it’s very important for judges to be educated about sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking dynamics, victim behavior, and witness intimidation, which in these crimes is so subtle and often missed.
But we want to make sure they’re always making decisions based on the law, and accurate understanding.
ES: You’re right. Judges, they’re originally citizens too. How can we expect our leaders to know what the right thing to do is? What is it that you think that young people might not be aware of when it comes to these types of issues?
JL: I think for young people who are interested in social justice and criminal justice reform, I want them to remember that there are actual individuals who have been harmed. And for those who are seeking alternative dispositions to just remember, too, that it is truly important to recognize how dangerous these perpetrators are. We need to ensure that they’re held accountable and that society is safe from them.
ES: Do you think they often know most cases are not fought out in the courtroom?
JL: They’re fought out through plea deals. It’s really hard again to generalize because every jurisdiction is so different. There are appropriate reasons to come to a plea agreement, but it should never be forced. I know COVID has put unusual burdens on the system, so it’s certainly time to be thoughtful about making sure that prosecutor offices have the resources and support they need to be able to help.
ES: Do you think that the Me Too movement has at all changed the dynamics of the work that you do?
JL: Me Too raised awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence, specifically in our communities, and the importance of addressing it and preventing it. I think sometimes you may wonder if things haven’t really changed all that much from 50 years ago. I think every movement matters and counts and I think that Me Too had a really important impact that I hope lasts for a long time.
ES: We talked about how it’s important for people to pay attention and be aware of certain issues. But also, judges and prosecutors can’t change the law. Our representatives do so, which leads me to my next question, which is why do you think it’s important for people to generally be civically involved?
JL: One really important piece is that many prosecutors are elected and it’s important to know what you’re electing for and it’s important to hear about it.
Sex crimes, partner violence, and human trafficking are unique situations and they do require a different level of understanding and a different level of attention. If nothing else, just to hear what the person’s position is.
Gender-based violence is an important interest of the community. So I think that it’s very important for people to be civically involved, and there are judges who are elected in some jurisdictions as well. And for judges who are implemented, or prosecutors who are appointed, I think the same level of civic involvement is required so that if there are questions, we can see where people are. Where do they stand on those crimes? We want people to be objective and not say how they would rule in particular cases. You wanna make sure that people who are sitting on the bench take the crime seriously and will be sitting without bias.
ES: You seem like someone who’s obviously very motivated about this issue too.
And I think that people who are often very motivated often have great music to listen to because, well, we need a strong, empowered playlist. So I was going to ask you, what are your top 5 songs that get you motivated and going?
JL: Out of all of the questions that you asked, you would think would be the least nervous about this one! [laughs] Coldplay was the first artist that came to mind. I will listen to anything by Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez. Those are my go-to’s. I listen to a lot of books on my phone sometimes. You know, romance Ebooks, but a lot of times just business eBooks to help me think or legal books.
ES: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about these really important issues.
JL: Speaking with you, I’m excited about your generation to take us to a place we haven’t been able to take the movement to and to go even further.