STRATEGIC PUNCHING

I was born in Illinois, and in fact I have spent the majority of my life thus far living in that wonderful political trainwreck of a state. Despite my deep affection for it, Illinois' penal code provides an excellent example of an alarmingly under-reported problem with sentencing disparities in this country. No, I'm not talking about that hilariously awesome crack-vs-cocaine sentencing disparity. I'm talking about the puzzling differentials between sentencing for battery and domestic battery.

According to these statistics from the Illinois Department of Corrections, mean/median sentences for aggravated battery, a Class 3 felony, were 3.0/3.0 years in 2004. For Domestic Battery, a Class 4 felony, the mean and median in the same year were 1.9/2.0 years. The strategic batterer will note the incentive to hit someone with whom they live rather than a stranger in Illinois.

Here in Georgia, domestic battery is considered a kind of Aggravated Battery, punishable by a minimum of 3 years in prison. In the same section (16-5-24) of the criminal code, Aggravated Battery on a public bus is punishable by a minimum of five. Take note: punch your wife, not an Atlanta bus driver.

In Arizona, a mandatory prison sentence, albeit one with no defined minimum, is imposed for the third conviction for domestic violence. Welcome to Phoenix, where the first two are free! (Different penalties may apply for Mexicans). Similarly, Mississippians treat domestic violence as Simple Battery punishable by "a fine of not more than Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six (6) months, or both." However, Battery on a court reporter or school bus driver is punishable "by a fine of not more than One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00) or by imprisonment for not more than five (5) years, or both." Indiana treats domestic battery as a Class A misdemeanor (although that's more severe than regular battery, a Class B).

Some states get it right – and by "right" I mean that domestic battery is treated at least the same aggravated battery, if not more seriously. But the number of states that do not is troubling. (Caveat: The FBI Uniform Crime statistics don't help here and I don't have time to research 50 states individually. Feel free to offer supporting evidence or counterpoints from other states). What is the logic behind this? Is there any logic behind it at all? My guess is that either the average state legislator doesn't think about this issue enough to bother looking up the statutes or they believe that the domestic nature of the crime is a mitigating factor rather than an aggravating one. Which is, uh, interesting.

Yes, I understand how a court might want to see it as a mitigating factor in specific hypothetical situations. Wife hits husband first, husband hits back, husband is the only one charged. But how often is that the case? What percentage of DV cases fit that description? If it was as large as 5% I'd be shocked shitless. I think the, um, 'traditional' model of husband beating the crap out of wife is somewhat more common and somewhat more problematic. By somewhat I mean a lot.

Perhaps the real "logic" is that domestic battery doesn't result in the same degree of bodily injury (on average) as aggravated battery on the street. In some cases there is no physical injury at all. That misses the point entirely. DV isn't about how much damage is done and "Oh, he only slapped her a little" isn't a valid way to downplay it. It's about people being in a relationship (or formerly so) in which one thinks it is OK to dominate and control the other. There is enough evidence to justify the use of the slippery slope here: verbal abuse turns into a push, a push turns into a punch, and a punch turns into something with worse consequences than a bruise. That pattern plays out so reliably because being on the giving end of domestic violence isn't something most people just decide to try on a whim. It's the manifestation of psychological or personality disorders reinforced by social attitudes that say it's OK, it's just something that happens, or that it's bad but excusable. And isn't it kinda the abused person's fault for staying in the relationship?

I honestly understand why the law would want to hand down a stricter sentence for violently assaulting a stranger than for me slapping my spouse or verbally abusing her. Based on a "physical damage done" criteria, the current laws would place those crimes in the correct order. The problem, however, is that both crimes suggest a pattern of behavior. If I get in a bar fight today, I'll probably get in another one later. If I beat my wife now, I'll beat her later too. But we have all the evidence we need or will ever hope to have that the latter is indicative of a patten of violent behavior that will get progressively more severe unless it is interrupted. In a country in which so many elected officials are desperate to get "tough on crime" to compensate for their tiny genitals or shore up the suburban vote, the attitude of "Well we can't really throw the book at 'em until we see some blood or a corpse" is as counter-intuitive as it is silly.

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38 Responses to “STRATEGIC PUNCHING”

  1. Edward Says:

    This whole country seems to have a "psychological or personality" disorder given the behavior of our government.

    The biggest disparity is probably between punishment of white collar/Wall Street crime and blue collar crime. We can all thank Bush for nearly eliminating the investigation of white collar crime during the biggest white collar crime wave in history.

  2. Radical Scientist Says:

    …And now, for comment #2: back to the subject at hand.

    Holy shit. I didn't even know 'battery' and 'domestic battery' were different charges, let alone that so many states would come down harder on you for assaulting anyone but your partner. And I thought I didn't have any faith left to lose in the judicial system.

  3. nunya Says:

    Let's be honest and ask this question: Who are congressmen more likely to batter? Every one of them knows they're more likely to hit their spouse than a stranger on the street.

    This is the problem with the priveleedged running government. They're out of touch with how 95% of their constituents live.

    That being said, it is surprisingly easy to become a felon in this country. Get a little too drunk and slap your girlfriend… guess what, you have lost the right to vote, the right to ever have a decent job, and the right to a decent life. I'm not excusing domestic violence but we are, as a whole, in full favor of destroying people for a momentary lapse in judgement.

  4. Jimcat Says:

    Wait, nunya, are you saying that 95% of Americans are more likely to hit an unrelated person than their significant other? If so, then it's not the congressment you cite who are out of touch. If not, what does your second paragraph mean?

  5. grumpygradstudent Says:

    "..in full favor of destroying people for a momentary lapse in judgement."

    Yeah. The "put them in an armored box and then tar them for life" solution is one of the more eggregiously stupid things this country does. This disparity seems stupid, but so is prison in general, so go figure.

  6. Denise Says:

    On a related note, how is it that the same people who push for stricter punishments for battery of an adult, ( domestic, stranger, or otherwise) have NO PROBLEM with hitting their children with belts, wooden paddles, switches or pretty much anything they can think of? Hmm. Hit an adult, who should know better than to start some shit – go to jail. Hit a child, who is still learning what some shit is – that's discipline, and THAT AIN'T NONE YO' BUSINESS!!!
    Frowny face.

  7. Bugboy Says:

    …I know this is going to sound crazy but…

    I have been on the receiving end of a disfunctional abusive relationship where my wife did all she could to get me to smack her. She claimed she was abused as a child, and I was fortunate to end the relationship before she pulled me down to her level. And I got my son, as well.

    There was booze and prescription meds being abused, and I did all I could to help her but she was lost. But it gave me a real eye opener to the dynamics of spouse abuse…that there are often 2 sides to it. Given my personal experience, then yes it makes sense to have lower penalty for assault against someone you live with rather than a stranger. To pick out a complete stranger to attack takes some loose screws…to be pushed to the limit day after day by a mentally ill spouse is simply human nature. Anyone who has taken care of a mentally ill relative knows how this is. If you are not completely rock solid yourself,,,you slip.

    Comment #1 about personality disorder is appropriate…I am beginning to think humans are by nature insane. A definition of insanity is "trying to do a particular thing over and over, but expecting a different result", well how do you account for the human propensity for imperialism, which always results in the same overextended failed empires?

  8. N/A Says:

    This "momentary lapse in judgement" argument bothers me. What I consider a momentary lapse in judgment is deciding to have ice cream for dinner or buying something expensive that you can't afford, etc. It's not losing control and breaking your wife's jaw. That's not about judgment. It's about anger and lack of control.

    Lord knows, our penal system is seriously messed up. But this post is about how wrong it is to punish people differently for the same crime if it's against a spouse. That nunya would consider it to be a minor lapse is appalling.

  9. Bugboy Says:

    @N/A

    You can go to jail for a hell of a lot less than breaking your wife's jaw…why must it be such hyperbole? Define exactly what constitutes assault?

    Agreed, our penal system is seriously messed…we're treating mental illness with confinement behind bars. Then we turn them out on the streets to start over.

    Need anyone be reminded who was behind the push in CA for the 3 strikes laws for drug offenders? The prison guard unions? Talk about job security! The penitentary system in CA is about to come tumbling down from being overloaded with potheads. And no one wants to pay for new prisons either, or pay for the ones that are over capacity now.

  10. HoosierPoli Says:

    A lapse in judgment is not the same as a lapse in self-control. Flipping out and punching someone because you're pissed is not a one-off bad call. It's a personality characteristic. If you can't restrain yourself when you're angry, it's gonna happen, and often.

  11. Del Says:

    Well, I hope this doesn't come out sounding like I'm defending wife-beaters, but couldn't some of the disparity be because a person who violently assaults a stranger is theoretically a threat to the entire population, while the guy who beats his wife is a threat only to her?

  12. N/A Says:

    @Bugboy

    I agree that we've overused jail sentences. And I agree that you shouldn't go to jail for slapping someone (or for smoking a joint). The only point I was trying to make is that it doesn't help to minimize spouse abuse. I grew up in the poor rural south and there was always some woman wearing a sweater in the summer to cover her bruises. And the husband's usual defense was that she somehow provoked him.

    Your experience with a mentally ill wife is a completely different circumstance. My sister spent her life making her mental problems everyone else's problems. You have my sympathy.

  13. N/A Says:

    And @Del

    Sometimes the reason that the guy doesn't beat up strangers is that he's taking out his frustrations on his wife. And, although it possibly makes our streets safer, it's ruining the life of the woman and her kids.

    Don't get me wrong. I don't want complete strangers to punch me in the face. But I do think it's just a bad — or worse — to punch someone that loves you.

  14. Bugboy Says:

    @N/A

    "…to punch someone that loves you."

    That is the most disturbing thing about my experience…it's not quite that simple. My wife's (and I've encountered more than a few woman whose upbringing defined what they considered "love") experiences as a child, I believe, led her to crave attention any way she could…even if it was bad attention in the form of abuse from her father. That led to a skewed view of men in general and of love in particular. This isn't as simple as men losing control and using their women as punching bags, as if they are inanimate objects. We don't live in caves anymore.

  15. marismae Says:

    Ok, wait. I'm a little confused here.

    Getting drunk and slapping your wife is a "lapse in judgement"? Are you for real?? Getting drunk is the lapse in judgement. And unless you and your spouse/signifigant other have a kinky sex life and being slapped is what gets their motor running and they have already consented to it… then slapping is DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, not a lapse in judgement.

    Bugboy, By the sounds of it, you were the victim of abuse in that situation and not your spouse. The abuse was verbal and psychological (possibly physical, though I cannot tell by what you've written). Nobody has stated that abuse doesn't happen in the way you've described. The OP quite perfectly characterized the progression in the *common* domestic abuse and violence cycle, that starts out as verbal abuse and then graduates to something more violent. The actual stages of violence in domestic abuse are:

    1. Honeymoon/Calm Period
    2. Tension Building
    3. Incident
    4. Making Up

    I don't want to spam the blog, but more details are here: http://www.domesticviolence.org/cycle-of-violence/

    And I would like to emphasize this, from their website:
    No one deserves to be abused. Period. The only person responsible for the abuse is the abuser.
    Physical violence, even among family members, is wrong and against the law.

    Do I think that someone who slaps their wife once should be put in jail? No, I think that they should be put in a treatment center for those with anger management issues. And if they "only do it when drunk" then they need to be admitted to a detox facility, admit they're an alcoholic (otherwise, why would they keep drinking when they know it makes them violent?), and also be treated for anger management issues. And if the wife or girlfriend (or boyfriend/husband) wants out of the relationship, and takes the kids with her/him… then too bad, so sad for the abuser. Maybe next time they'll think before they lash out.

    If it happens more then once, then yes, they should be thrown in jail so that they get the damn point that abusing your spouse is WRONG and AGAINST THE LAW and is a sign of underlying personal problems. It makes me absolutely sick that hitting a stranger is taken more seriously then hitting someone who has given you their trust and loyalty the way a spouse has.

  16. Bugboy Says:

    The proof in the pudding for me was several months after we split and she's got a hot stud of a new boyfriend, I happened to see her…with a black eye. She claims she "ran into the door". Riiiight.

  17. JohnR Says:

    You dang liberals are always trying to destroy our Tradition! What kind of a world is it where a God-fearing, honest, hard-working man can't beat his wife when she doesn't make his sandwich fast enough? Of course, any woman who raises her hand against her Heaven-ordained Lord and Master should get the fullest punishment available. I'm thinking this idea of "domestic abuse" needs to be more "fully" defined, if you get my drift, and I think you do.

  18. Ed Says:

    *sigh*

  19. robot eating Says:

    The strategic batterer always checks his state's penal code before bouncing off for his nightly poundings.

  20. grumpygradstudent Says:

    I'm not defending violence of any kind, domestic or otherwise, and i agree that there's no reason to treat domestic violence more leniently. But locking people in a warehouse with other fucked up people and then making sure they'll never be able to get a job again is not a good solution to the problem. It's like we took one of the central problems facing society and let a bunch of 10 year old boys figure out a solution to it. It's idiotic, and it doesn't work.

  21. William Shatner Says:

    A good old fashioned back-handed slap gets the attention of most sexy alien broads. If that fails, a double-ax-handle chop always does the trick. It's good to be the Captain.

  22. Denise Says:

    @ grumpygradstudent –
    I guess I just like wasting tax dollars (take that, TeaBaggers!), because in my opinion, if you're a dumbass with no impulse control who goes around beating people senseless when you're a grown adult who should know the "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" rule and knows there's consequences for breaking said rule ….. FUCK YOU!!!!!!! I don't give a flying rat's ass if you can get a cushy job or not, that's what you get for being a violent dumbass. The disparity in sentencing for domestic abuse vs. battery of pretty much anyone else stems from the fact that while we have made great strides, there is still that "women-as-marital-property" mindset deeply ingrained in our subconscious as a society, and until we fix that, this will not change much.

  23. JohnR Says:

    "*sigh*"?!

    That's all I get for slaving over a hot word-processor for at least 75 seconds typing my fingers to the bone for your pleasure? (*stifled sob*). Mother was right!

  24. m Says:

    Honestly, I think the point of the post was the disparity. I don't think you can compare the mental issues of a batterer who hits a stranger and one who hits the person they "love". In fact, to me the worse crime is the domestic battery. You are in a relationship where you trust and depend on someone else, and by hurting you they destroy you physically and emotionally. Besides, I don't hear many stories of people tracking down that guy they hit in the bar the other night, yet women who flee domestic violence literally have to flee. They are likely to be killed by their batterer after leaving. So please explain to me why our antiquated laws can't be updated? I agree with the angry grad student. Legally women are still treated as the property of their husbands. Mandatory arrest laws for DV calls have helped a little, but this problem can't be solved with simple fixes. It has to start with a change in mindset as a culture, and unfortunately those take forever, and the fringe in our country are slow to come to the party of the more civilized people. They prefer to live in ignorance and hate.

    I don't hold out much hope for change in my lifetime regarding this issue, I have followed it since college, through law school, and I don't see much changing. I had the "pleasure" during law school of watching a judge slap the wrist of a med student (white kid) who beat up his girlfriend. You know, 'cause he is going to contribute to society someday, so we wouldn't want to ruin his life. But then hammer down on a person who was not white, and was obviously from a poorer walk of life.

    my theory, people who are living the good life, know their kids screw up, or that they like to pound on their spouses sometimes, so they really don't want to change the laws. of course the older i get the more pessimistic I am, and the more I think our complete legal system will need to be overhauled before we can truly consider ourselves a mature and civilized country.

  25. Jason Harx Says:

    "Wife hits husband first, husband hits back, husband is the only one charged. But how often is that the case?"

    In my experience, violence on the part of both is the case in a very good portion of the time.

    I did grow up in government subsidized housing where a police car out front was a semiweekly occurrence. And I had multiple abusive (emotionally and physically) stepfathers, so I'd guess that I have more experience than the average guy.

    I'd say it's rarely as simple as your example, but usually both sides get in a few good ones before it's all over. But that's just my experience.

  26. Liebchen Says:

    Domestic violence is usually about control. It is not a lapse of reasoning. Demands are made, and when they are not met, consequences are doled out. When the controlee grows resistant to the demands, the controller must raise the ante by escalating the degree of intimidation. This eventually morphs into violence, which itself eventually escalates into extreme violence.

    The perpetrators of DV are of a similar mindset as those who batter strangers, in that they see violence as a resolution to frustration or disappointment. That's about as far as it goes, though.

  27. Cokehead Says:

    @Denise

    What the flying fuck? I had anger problems when I was a kid – it's not something that's so easily controlled. You don't lock these people up and ruin their lives forever – you get them help. I still have anger problems, but I've learned to avoid situations that make me prone to violence and when it happens anyway, I've found ways to redirect the violence elsewhere.

    That said, while I understand the problem with the disparity on paper (between abuse and domestic abuse, that is), I've never been a fan of prison sentences that are meant more as a public statement then to actually do good for society. I think it's absolutely retarded that some states completely fuck you over FOR LIFE if you get caught drunk driving a single time. Sure, the penalty should be harsh, but ffs, how is making them permanently unemployable going to help?

    I know someone in a state that considers drunk driving the first time a misdemeanor. He got caught, license suspended for anything but work, and he has to go to drunk classes. He feels guilty about it and the sentence did it's job – he's certainly not going to do it again.

    If he was in many other states, though, he'd never have a job again. He might not feel capable of doing anything BUT drink, in fact. That's not justice.

  28. Denise Says:

    @ Cokehead –
    I can get on board with your "statement vs. societal good" stance, but what societal good does it do when time and time again abusers are given light suspended sentences with fines and court ordered therapy that they sleepwalk through, only to beat the crap out of their wives/girlfriends and sometimes husbands again and again? Reformed wife-beaters are hard to come by. "Anger problems"? Volunteer at your local CASA or other domestic violence shelter for a year if you can stomach it, I bet you'll come out with a slightly harder heart when it comes to sentencing for these offenders. Restraining orders too often mean nothing, and far too often the end result is lifelong disabilities or murder. Two lives flushed down the toilet (more, actually, because there are usually children involved) and for what? You'll have to excuse me for not getting too teary eyed for the accountant who now works at TGI Fridays because he got sloppy the last time he beat his girlfriend and forgot the "no marks" rule and punched 3 teeth down her throat and blew out her right eye, or the meth head who set his wife and kids on fire because she made Hamburger Helper instead of steak. or the dude who just likes the sound of his fist hitting his wife's face on Tuesday. I got the crap beat out of me as a child for infractions like putting pillows on the couch incorrectly, and I don't beat my kids or my husband or anyone else for that matter . It's no excuse. People need to be raised better to DO better, and our sytem needs to treat all assault victims and perpetrators equally and hand down sentences that make sense.
    That's what the flying fuck, Cokehead.
    That's what the flying fuck.

  29. beau Says:

    I second Ed's sigh, and Denise's rant.

    Really, Denise's suggestion to volunteer at a shelter is a good one. Until you've done something like this, you just can't really grasp how many run-of-the-mill, unprovoked man-on-woman cases you have to wade through to find one where the guy is actually getting short shrift.

  30. ladiesbane Says:

    The point of the post was infuriating — so many comments were too, for different reasons.

    Let me pitch a parallel point for perspective: in many states, if you rape a neighbor's child, you go to jail; but if you rape your own child, you go to therapy. The incest loophole and the probation loophole remind me of this problem — beat your neighbor's wife, go to jail; beat your own wife and That Ain't Right But That's Your Business. So-called "family law" needs a head-to-toe revamp.

    And anyone who says "she goaded me mercilessly until I lost it" is using the same logic as a date rapist. There are a lot of girls with crossed wires out there, but they don't deserve to be beaten or raped because of it. Walk away, for their good and your own. And if you do the bad thing, never try to justify it or mitigate it or blame HER.

  31. Entomologista Says:

    My right to live in a violence-free environment supersedes your right to not go to jail for the rest of your natural life.

  32. Hazy Davy Says:

    I remember the good ol' days, when I was the only flippant commenter.

    Without a lot of "deep thought", I think I think the following:
    All violent crimes of a similar nature (chronic vs. one-time vs. "of passion", against one person vs. against oneself vs. against a corporation vs. against a group vs. against society, physical vs. psychological vs. financial) should have a single sentencing guideline.
    Except, I'd like to see a multiplier where the victim is particularly helpless or vulnerable (based on age, mental capacity, domestic arrangement, dependence, …)

    But then, I also think the world would be better if there were societal discouragements against a lot of negative behaviors, rather than requiring legislative ones. And I would like free pizza.

  33. Elle Says:

    I had anger problems when I was a kid – it's not something that's so easily controlled.

    Women and children experiencing domestic abuse often describe the way that their partner or parent is capable, in the middle of bouncing them off walls or smacking them around, of answering the phone or door to other people and being perfectly civil, and in hitting and kicking them places where bruises can be concealed.

    Domestic abuse usually involves threats and constraints that involve planning, and no little amount of cunning. Monitoring phone calls, clothing choices, relationships with colleagues and friends, and financial expenditure are not 'heat of the moment' tasks.

    It's the manifestation of psychological or personality disorders reinforced by social attitudes that say it's OK, it's just something that happens, or that it's bad but excusable.

    That's exactly it. Evan Stark writes in Coercive Control about the way that the most compelling evidence that domestic abuse is a result of psychopathology, from work done by Canadian psychologist Donald Dutton, doesn't really identify a psychiatric condition, per se, but a "spectrum of personality or behavioural traits that are widely found in the general population".

    As you have said, Ed, Dutton's measures of 'demandingness', 'manipulation', and 'intense anger' are fairly susceptible to reinforcement by an existing systemic failure to challenge their manifestation in violence. Dutton himself says that the traits were likely to be "strongly attuned to aspects of the culture that direct and justify abuse", rather than the byproduct of mental processes or illness.

  34. Tosh Says:

    Complicated matter…
    In my opinion, the analysis is severly flawed and in need of a careful re-examination. I believe we will find the spouse beating, jaw breaking, smack the shit outta the spouse at the drop of a hat, psychopath is a rare find. (notice the use of the gender neutral, nonspecfic noun)
    The only way to get accurate research is to reconsider the dymanic of the abuse and dysfunction within the relationship and to treat all parties as involved in the process. The majority automatically treat the women as victim and perpetuate the culture of "The Victim." This requires asking tough questions and straight answers, not the least of which is "what exactly is violence?" Why do we consider the illogical conclusion (broken jaws, murder, etc…) the violence; why not name calling, control, or manipulation. Much less tangible, no.

  35. Tosh Says:

    So I became familiar with domestic violence, as victim and perpetrater. Like BugBoy, my exwife was an angry, violent woman and incidents and accidents built over the term of the relationship, until she decided it was a good idea to throw a coffee cup through my $2000 guitar… talk about loss of control. Still, it was not my intention to cause physical harm: it was violent. She ended up with a 1 inch cut on her head: I ended up with a conviction and a new life. I dont even know if I caused the cut, but that is not the point and I accept my part in the state of event. I dont think my former wife ever did. two months later I heard her son had her arrested for… domestic battery. She slapped him. He was smarter than I was.

  36. Tosh Says:

    Upon reflection, the marrage was rife with abusive behaviour and attitude, and not just from within. Her parent/family contributed as well. So I agree with the Ladiesbane "daterapist mentality" and I should have left any number of times throughout the course of the relationship. That could be another area of fruitful research " Why do abusive partners stay?" The Ghandian defination of violence is when one imposes their will on another by any means. We are indelibly violent, as a species

    The purpose is to suggest an investigation without the gender bias. I do not believe anyone has undertaken that sort of task and the majority of the commentary reflect that bias. To attribute "victimhood" should be, at the least, the last step, not the first and inherent step. It denies all the humanity and absolves all the indivuduals of an responsibility for their own lives.
    At the very least, the aggrieved party could leave, as much as he or she may not want. A place to start

  37. beau Says:

    Hey! I've got an idea! Let's derail this perfectly adequate post about sentencing disparities and head over to another conversation about how unfair today's society is towards men in this situation and all others.

    Yeah, that'll be great. And so damn original and stimulating.