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Online Handbook

Advocating for Women in the Criminal Justice System
in Cases of Rape, Domestic Violence and Child Abuse


The following is an online manual for advocating for victims of violence against women in the criminal justice system. This text in no way covers all the circumstances you'll encounter. Our hope is that it will serve as one resource among many in developing your criminal justice advocacy skills.

We focus on the criminal justice system because the criminal justice system is the only institution in our society that's vested with the powers and authority to intervene and stop the violence, to carry out a criminal investigation, to protect the victim, to put the perpetrator under control, and to prosecute and provide justice. At the same time that the criminal justice system is vested with these exclusive powers, too many criminal justice officials remain deeply resistant to implementing these powers on behalf of women. Despite advances, victims of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse all too frequently continue to encounter denials of their rights to equal protection and equal justice in the criminal justice system.

Officer discrimination against and mistreatment of victims, failures to write reports, half hearted investigations, failure to collect evidence, prosecutorial refusals to file charges despite sufficient evidence, give-away plea bargains, slap-on-the wrist sentencing, and overall disregard continue despite well tailored laws and policies that provide officers with ample powers to intervene effectively. When your clients encounter these obstacles, your skillful advocacy is essential to making the system work for women.

A key problem for advocates is that we have no official powers for advocating in a system that is invested with more unchecked power than any other government entity. This means women's advocates need a sound knowledge of the system, an unshakeable conviction in women's rights to equal protection and justice, and a courageous willingness to fight for those rights. And you need a big bag of tricks in order to succeed in the David and Goliath dimensions of the struggle that ensues when law enforcement refuses to act properly on behalf of your client. Standing between women who are terrorized by violence on the one side, and the sometimes powerful abuses and intimidations of law enforcement on the other, is not for the faint of heart.

The situation, however, is far from hopeless. The picture in the criminal justice system is not monolithic. Quite the opposite, it is in a very lively state of transition. Throughout the system there are officials who do want to move forward and who are using their powers to protect women from violence. Moreover, both the public and victims themselves are more and more willing to make their righteous demands be heard so that law enforcement deal seriously with violence against women and children. All these positive forces can be powerful allies in helping you fight for your client's rights to protection and justice when those rights are being denied. The skill of your advocacy, in this broiling transition time of push and pull, is often the deciding factor that can focus the immense powers of the criminal justice system onto liberating your client's life from violence.

Our great hope is that this handbook will help you obtain the protection and justice that are essential to your clients' liberty and to ending the violence and oppression of women everywhere. We also hope this text will spark your thinking about the larger strategies that are needed to reconstruct a criminal justice system that responds equitably and respects the rights of all people.

NOTE: Throughout this text we assume that you already know and practice ethical principles of advocacy, foremost of which is the cardinal rule that before you take any action on behalf of your client you have her fully informed consent.

NOTE: This manual emphasizes what may go wrong with the criminal justice system response. Naturally, this is because when things are going well, your role is primarily educational and supportive. It's when things go wrong that your skillful intervention is most needed.

NOTE: Though the legal references in this text are based on California law, we hope we've put this together in a way that will be useful to women's advocates anywhere in the world. The problem of law enforcement unwillingness to implement their powers on behalf of women exists in every corner and community in the world.


Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


All rights reserved © 2010 by Woman's Justice Center
Web site by S. Henry Wild