The video, like so many videos ostensibly talking about how to save the world, begins with two white men in crisp white shirts and ties. One of the men is a reporter, the other is then-vice president Joe Biden. They sit facing each other on an Amtrak train, outlines of Anywhere, America, zipping past in the window.
“Another thing, about how perspectives change over time,” the reporter says, easing Biden into what he knows will be a difficult question: “Bobby Rush, member of Congress, said the other day ‘I’m ashamed that I voted for the ’94 crime bill.’ Are you ashamed of that bill?”
“Not at all,” Biden replies. “In fact, I drafted the bill, if you remember.”
The 1994 crime bill—the one Biden has passionately defended and will almost certainly continue to defend now that he has officially announced his run for the presidency—did not singlehandedly create America’s ever-expanding prison population; the country was already well on its way to the current crisis of mass incarceration. But it did cement in our collective political imagination the false belief that prisons make people safer: provisions of the sweeping bill included more money for police, more money for prisons, more so-called three-strikes laws, an expansion of the death penalty, and less money to help people in prison go to college.
And one reason these draconian provisions passed with such overwhelming support was because Biden engineered it so a vote against the crime bill was a vote against women. Tucked inside that 1994 crime bill was the Violence Against Women Act, a measure that meant $1.6 billion for rape crisis centers, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, battered women’s shelters, training law enforcement, and grants for police departments that created “pro-arrest programs.”
When VAWA is discussed in the press, it’s often discussed separately from its crime bill origins—cast as a victory for women and proof of Biden’s longstanding commitment to women’s rights. But this sectioning off of VAWA matters. It obscures the law from its origin as well as some of its consequences, and allows Biden and his supporters to present a selective, rosy narrative of a good man trying to do right by women. But there’s an alternative narrative of VAWA that is also part of Biden’s legacy: It bound vital supports for domestic violence victims to an endless expansion of the carceral state.
Professor Angela Y. Davis, speaking at the Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color conference in 2000, articulated the contradictions of VAWA, and raised the question of whether a state that “constructs itself in and through violence” can act to “minimize violence in the lives of women.” Her analysis is no less relevant today:
The major strategy relied on by the women’s anti-violence movement of criminalizing violence against women will not put an end to violence against women–just as imprisonment has not put an end to “crime” in general.
I should say that this is one of the most vexing issues confronting feminists today. On the one hand, it is necessary to create legal remedies for women who are survivors of violence. But on the other hand, when the remedies rely on punishment within institutions that further promote violence—against women and men, how do we work with this contradiction?
There is no question that VAWA has had a transformative impact on women’s lives—both in the creation of material resources for victims and the shift in our perceptions about violence it helped bring about. But it’s worth reviewing the ugly parts of this legislation—work that was sold as a way to make women safer, in fact, the only way to make women safer—as Biden launches his bid to be the most powerful man in the country. Biden has his personal narrative of what VAWA did, which will be spread across his campaign. But the voices of the women VAWA failed are just as important to hear.
At the time VAWA was passed in 1994, appearing “tough on crime” was a reliable way for a politician to make a name for themselves. (While he was governor of Arkansas and campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton infamously went back to his home state so as to not miss an execution. And it was the now-solid blue state California that passed one of the earliest three-strikes laws in the country, which other states quickly copied.) Amid the growing belief that criminalization fixed problems, the federal government, with Clinton now in the executive chair, got in on the action with the 1994 crime bill. Tucked within it was VAWA, which Biden had been proposing since 1990.
The inclusion of VAWA in the crime bill was no accident. In an interview for her book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Naomi Murakawa discussed how Biden used the idea of “protecting women” to make the bill impossible to vote against:
He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences. Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up. There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly. But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.
That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive. One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone. It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it. There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act. The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.
This was the bargain: the funding necessary to help survivors would come at the cost of more cops, harsher penalties, and a crueler system.
VAWA created the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Office of Violence Against Women, and a network of grants that are distributed to non-profits and government agencies that still rely on that money to provide services to survivors, but it also encouraged states to create mandatory arrest policies, which can have the unintended consequence of making victims less likely to call for help. Mandatory prosecution policies also proliferated, which had the unintended consequence of turning victims of domestic violence into victims of state violence as well when they were charged with crimes for not doing as prosecutors told them.
As University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark has been saying for years, there’s no empirical evidence that proves the criminal justice interventions of VAWA made women safer. As Goodmark wrote in 2015, “While rates of domestic violence fell significantly between 1993 and 2000, that decline was consistent with the overall decrease in the United States’ crime rate. From 2000 to 2010, rates of domestic violence fell less than the decrease in the overall crime rate, notwithstanding the robust criminal justice response to domestic violence.”
VAWA did, however, reflect whose voices were being heard in the battered women’s movement, and whose weren’t.
“The early battered women’s movement was largely driven by and built around the norms and needs of white middle-class women. Their faith in the deterrent power of the criminal law spurred the drive to treat intimate partner violence as a criminal matter,” she writes in Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, her second book detailing why criminalization hasn’t been the solution it was held out to be in the United States. “From the beginning of the anti-violence movement women of color foresaw the problems of that criminalization would create for their communities, but those concerns went largely unheeded in the rush to institutionalize criminalization in law and policy.”
The homicide numbers since VAWA passed are pretty grim. The Violence Policy Center has been issuing reports since 1998, four years after VAWA passed, breaking out the numbers of women killed by men using FBI data from two years before. In 1996, the rate of homicide for women murdered by men was 1.57 per 100,000. By 2016, that number had dropped to 1.2 per 100,000:
Compare that to various drops over the years in the national murder rate, which peaked in 1980. While the rate for women killed by men has dropped about 24 percent, the murder rate has gone from 7.4 per 100,000 in 1996 to 5.3 per 100,000 in 2016—an almost 29 percent drop. While Biden likes to cite a 63 percent decline in domestic violence, as PolitiFact pointed out earlier this year, another government report contains this graphic showing that the domestic violence rate “essentially stagnated” between 2000 and 2010:
It is also impossible to talk about what’s wrong with VAWA without talking about how violence disproportionately affects black women, as well as Native women and Latinas. Homicide data from 2016 showed black women were murdered by men at a rate more than double that of white women. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly half of all Native women, nearly half of all black women, and 34 percent of all Hispanic women in the United States will experience violence by a sexual partner within their lifetime.
And for years, it has been primarily black, Latinx, Native, and queer women who have been pointing out the many ways in which VAWA has failed. The critical resistance statement from INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence announced back in 2001: “However, as an overall strategy for ending violence, criminalization has not worked.” In this 2017 interview with Broadly, prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba summed up many of these critiques when she discussed her own experience working with a domestic violence organization. As Kaba recalled, survivors of domestic violence often have a simple request: Please make the violence stop. It’s a request that the current system isn’t set up to provide:
I was really dissatisfied with the prosecution focus when, for a lot of the survivors I was working with, that usually wasn’t their first interest. A lot of times, all they wanted was for the violence to end. They didn’t want their partners prosecuted. A lot of times their partners were helping them financially and they were dependent on that in various ways. Taking that away from them put them into even more precarious situations with their families. Sometimes, for women of color and undocumented women, it was a matter of not trusting the cops. There were just so many times when [the police] weren’t wanted as the intervention, or it wasn’t enough. They had other issues and problems that needed to be addressed, and we couldn’t really offer much besides telling them to take their case to the police or to get an order of protection. I was frustrated by what I saw, and by what I later understood was a form of carceral feminism that told women, “You have to collude with the state, and if you don’t, we really don’t have that much to say to you.”
The causes of violence against women are myriad, deeply rooted in this society, and interact with all our various identities. No two women will require the exact same solution. But it’s a complex discussion that has to be had. Biden’s presidential campaign is an opportunity to have that conversation, particularly as he is likely to run—as he has for much of his career—on his record around VAWA.
It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of videos in which Biden talks about how much he’s done to make women safer. From a strategic viewpoint, it makes a certain grim marketing sense. Wouldn’t you brag about your candidate’s record of saying no to violence against women? Just forget how he allowed Anita Hill to be berated on national television. Forget all the women saying he inappropriately touched them. Just focus on the achievements he made for women.
But for millions of victims of domestic violence, as Kaba pointed out, “we really don’t have that much to say to you” is still the answer they get when asking for help. Victims aren’t offered a reprieve from violence instead, they’re trapped between two different kinds of violence, that of the state and of their abuser. That’s part of Biden’s legacy, too.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misstated the murder rate percentages. They have been corrected.