SLS Report Analyzes How Women Incarcerated for Killing Their Abusers Fare in the Criminal Legal System

The Stanford Criminal Justice Center recently released a report titled Great Weight: A Review of California Board of Parole Hearings Transcripts to Assess Frequency and Consideration of Intimate Partner Violence Among Women Convicted of Homicide Offenses,which examines the frequency with which women are incarcerated for killing their abusers and how they fare in the parole process.

Debbie Mukamal
Stanford Criminal Justice Center Executive Director Debbie Mukamal

The report was researched and written as part of a policy practicum, Creating a National Census of Women Imprisoned for Murdering their Abusers, taught in Spring 2022 by Stanford Criminal Justice Center Executive Director Debbie Mukamal, with assistance from Faculty Director David Sklansky. Stanford Law School students Lauren Courtney, Jamie Halper, Hayden Henderson, Kara Salovaara, and Emily Vaughan (all JD ’24) took principal responsibility for drafting the report. Nine other SLS students contributed by coding the data from the parole hearing transcripts.

Through a systemic review of 140 parole hearing transcripts provided by the California Board of Parole Hearings (BPH), the researchers found that approximately 23 percent of women incarcerated for homicide in California are serving time for a crime directly linked to their experience of intimate partner violence. While these survivors experience a parole grant rate nearly equivalent to that of the general prison population, they are, on average, serving over two decades in prison before being found suitable for parole. The researchers’ transcript review also revealed that more than 90 percent of survivors incarcerated for intimate partner-related homicides had experienced other forms of trauma—such as child abuse or sexual violence—prior to their incarceration. The report argues that policy makers should consider nuanced approaches to post-conviction decision-making that better reflect the dynamics of intimate partner violence, which will allow the criminal legal system to more fairly treat victims and survivors of intimate partner violence.

In addition to a quantitative analysis of how many survivors of intimate partner violence are currently incarcerated for homicide offenses, the study also makes qualitative observations about survivors’ experiences during the parole process and offers both recommendations and future research directions to expand policy makers’ knowledge about this vulnerable population. These recommendations include: 1) providing additional and ongoing training to BPH commissioners and staff on the nature of intimate partner violence, and 2) allowing formerly incarcerated survivors of intimate partner violence a greater voice in the parole process. 

The report also encourages future research on a range of topics, including: the relationship between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injury; how sentencing enhancements might disproportionately impact women; the role of formal intimate partner violence investigations in the parole process; the prevalence of previous sexual trauma among intimate partner violence survivors; and the role of District Attorneys in parole suitability hearings.

This study builds on the work the Stanford Criminal Justice Center is leading as part of the Regilla Project, a national research project focused on women who are incarcerated for murdering their abusers. A forthcoming report will analyze the frequency with which women are incarcerated for killing their abusers through surveys being conducted in summer 2023 with individuals currently incarcerated at the women’s correctional facility in Chowchilla, CA.

Read the report here.