In April, the Center on Wrongful Convictions’ Women’s Defense Initiative hosted a panel, “Illinois’ Resentencing Statutes and their Impact for Black Women,” as part of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s series on Lawyering and Race in the 21st Century series. The discussion highlighted Illinois’ domestic violence and postpartum depression resentencing provisions.
The speakers included Alexis Mansfield, senior advisor at the Women’s Justice Institute; Rachel White-Domain, director of the Women and Survivors Project at Illinois Prison Project; Latoya Griffin, a freed person who was granted clemency in 2021; and Sandra Brown, a freed person who was released in 2022 and now an analytical senior advisor at the Women’s Justice Institute. Moderated by Jianing Xie, staff attorney at the Women’s Defense Initiative, the panel answered questions from the audience and reflected on the ways the criminal justice system disproportionally affects Black women who are victims of domestic violence and suffer from post-partum psychosis. “We really see the bind that Black women find themselves in in court, this real lack of options and no wonder many of them decide to take a plea [deal] just based on the reality of the situation,” Xie said.
In 2016, Illinois made an amendment to statute 2-1401, which allows domestic violence survivors who are incarcerated, and whose experience of domestic violence were not taken into account in their original sentencing hearing, to ask the court for a new hearing. The amendment also includes consideration for instances of offense which were the direct result of post-partum depression or post-partum psychosis.
White-Domain represents several women who were convicted of homicide after defending themselves against an abuser. “Policing, prisons, and prosecution are not a solution to human problems. They don’t solve [them]. We haven’t invested in the ways that we know how to solve problems like domestic violence,” she said.
Brown, who was incarcerated for a domestic fight, said that gender-based violence has long been deemed acceptable by society. “We still see Black women criminalized for surviving some very horrific things,” she said. “We’re often threatened and beaten into silence. The same thing happens in court when we are threatened with longer sentences because we speak up. And when we do speak up, we have to overcome these obstacles of invalidation and justification.”
Griffin talked about her experience with post-partum depression, having been convicted of murdering her child and sentenced to 70 years in prison as a teenager. She was freed through executive clemency last year, with the help of the CWC, after an expert testified in court to the effects of post-partum depression. “I suffered from depression my whole life,” Griffin said. “Post-partum depression is [anxiety], guilt, shame, discomfort, a number of things that many people face and don’t know they are going through this.” She described her time in prison and hearing similar stories from the women she was incarcerated with. “No woman carries their child for nine months and wakes up and decides to kill her child. There’s a mental break, and the criminal justice system needs to look into it more and not just lock women up and throw away the key.”
Even though the amendment is a step in the right direction, Mansfield noted that much more needs to be done. “There are only four known survivors who have benefited under that act,” she said. “At least 60 petitions have been filed and only four have even received any benefit.” That benefit was only three years off of a 30-year sentence in one case. “We’ve started to look at what those issues were that have prevented other survivors from getting relief, which was the entire intention of enacting this law.”
The panel hopes that their work will push lawmakers to make additional changes to Illinois laws, like 2-1401, which will continue to help women seek relief from domestic violence and post-partum depression. “Nothing needs to be a secret anymore,” Griffin said. “More ladies need to tell their stories so that society can adjust, adapt, and help.” Brown adds that she would like to see a justice system that “doesn’t equate Blackness with less-ness.” She stated: “I would like to see justice tempered with mercy. I’m hoping that more women receive the relief that the law is said to provide. That would be one of the first steps to receiving the healing long overdue so many of us.”