On Sunday, 16-year-old Bresha Meadows was released from a juvenile mental health treatment center in Ohio. Though she returned home to her mother and siblings, Meadows is not yet free. She must still spend two years on probation—and her story serves as a reminder of the countless other girls and women behind bars who are also survivors of family or domestic violence.
In July 2016, Meadows, then age 14, was arrested after fatally shooting her abusive father. She was sent to a juvenile detention center on charges of aggravated murder. She faced the possibility of being tried as an adult; if convicted, she would have been sentenced to life in prison as opposed to until the age of 21. Nearly six months later, prosecutors announced that they would keep her case in juvenile court. In May 2017, Meadows entered a plea of “true” (the juvenile equivalent of guilty) to charges of involuntary manslaughter. She was sentenced to a year and a day in juvenile prison (with ten months of time served), six months in a residential mental health facility, and two years of probation.
It’s important to remember that, while no longer confined to a juvenile detention or mental health facility, Meadows remains under state supervision. While on probation, her actions will more heavily scrutinized—and have greater repercussions. In Ohio, probation is administered differently in each of the state’s 88 juvenile courts. Depending on the strictness of her supervision, this may mean that normal teenage actions that are not typically illegal, such as staying out late or being loud with friends in a public area, can lead to harsh sanctions, which might include the threat of being sent back to detention. Being stopped by the police for being a Black girl might be seen as a probation violation. Still, being home with her family, in a home free of violence, is still infinitely preferable than being locked away in a prison or mental health facility.
Meadows’ story—and her ensuing legal ordeal—garnered widespread public attention and outcry. Supporters created #FreeBresha, an all-volunteer defense committee, to secure her freedom. They started a petition as well as a letter-writing campaign urging the prosecutor to drop the charges. Though Meadows’ attorney, Ian Friedman, had taken her case pro bono, money was still needed to pay for expert witnesses and legal fees: #FreeBresha supporters raised those funds as well as money for emergency family support. Members organized book drives, sending hundreds of books and letters to the teen while she was in detention. They flew to Warren, Ohio, to pack the courtroom (or, when they were prohibited from entering, court hallways).
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That support, Friedman said, helped keep Meadows’ spirits up during her legal nightmare. “She’s been really touched by the amount of support shows from across the globe,” he told Rewire in 2017. “It’s really easy when you’re incarcerated to feel alone and feel depressed. The support has really been important to her and helped immensely.”
Meadows’ aunt, Martina Latessa, agreed. In a text message to Rewire this week, she thanked the many supporters who supported her niece throughout the nearly two-year ordeal. “Without the support, Bresha would not be home,” she wrote.
But what about survivors of violence who don’t have this kind of publicity or support? No one knows the exact—or even approximate—numbers of people behind bars who are survivors of family or domestic violence. A 2014 study found that 84 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system had experienced family violence before incarceration. Nearly half of all adult women in jails and prisons reported being abused before their arrest. That data was published in 1999, nearly 20 years ago, and continues to be the most recent national information available.
Mariame Kaba is one of the founders of #FreeBresha. She is also a co-founder of Survived and Punished, a nationwide coalition supporting criminalized and incarcerated abuse survivors.
“Most people behind bars don’t have a defense campaign,” she reminded Rewire. “It’s a lot of work to run a defense campaign. It takes up a lot of people’s time. You have to navigate how to make contact with people inside, how to make contact with their families. These things are not easy.” At the same time, “With 2.3 million people behind bars, it’s unreasonable that everybody could get this level of support.”
Kaba emphasizes the importance of supporting survivors of violence before they end up entangled in the criminal legal system. A crucial first step, she says, is to become educated about domestic violence. “Participate in trainings [about supporting survivors] at your local domestic violence organization,” she said. “Everybody has a local domestic violence organization in their town.”
At the same time, people need to pay more attention to their local district or state’s attorneys, who have the power to decide whether to charge a person for crimes related to domestic abuse or to allow them to go home. “Find out what is happening, who is being charged. Do some court watching,” she recommended, referring to the practice of sitting in a courtroom and taking note of who is charged and with what crime. She also reminded Rewire that district attorneys are usually elected officials who can be voted out of office—and they, in turn, appoint juvenile prosecutors and assistant district attorneys. “If you don’t know who your local prosecutor is, find out and monitor them. If they’re always talking about ‘law and order’ and harsh punishment, vote for their challenger,” she said.
She points to the 2016 #ByeAnita campaign, which ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Alvarez took more than one year to charge Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. However, Alvarez was quick to prosecute an abuse survivor; in 2011, she prosecuted Tiawanda Moore, a Black woman who was groped by a police officer responding to a domestic violence call. Her repeated calls to Chicago’s internal affairs department were met with attempts to intimidate her into dropping her complaints. Frustrated, she recorded their interactions, but in Illinois at the time, it was illegal to record on-duty police. Alvarez’s office immediately charged Moore with criminal wiretapping, which carried a possible 15-year prison sentence. A jury ultimately acquitted Moore. But Alvarez’s office failed to investigate, let alone charge, the investigators who discouraged Moore from filing a complaint.
In 2015, Alvarez immediately filed first-degree murder charges against Naomi Freeman, a 23-year-old Black mother charged in the death of her abusive boyfriend. But after Alvarez was ousted from the prosecutor’s office during the 2016 election, her successor Kim Foxx was willing to meet with advocates who spoke about the dynamics of domestic violence and urged her not to prosecute Freeman, along with two other domestic violence survivors facing charges. Ultimately, Foxx’s office dropped charges against one survivor and reduced charges against Freeman to involuntary manslaughter, which carried 30 months of probation, but no prison time. (The case of the third survivor is still ongoing.) What was the difference? “The difference was no Anita Alvarez,” said Kaba.
Ultimately, Kaba noted, “If less prosecutors filed charges against survivors, then we’d have less survivors behind bars.” But, while Foxx may prove more amenable to not prosecuting abuse survivors, many other district attorneys currently continue to do so. The survivors in their crosshairs often remain unknown and unsupported, but they don’t have to be. This is where the importance of learning—and then acting—comes in.
“Read the local paper,” Kaba recommended. That’s where stories involving defense against domestic, family, or sexual violence often appear, though they are often not framed as self-defense.
This is how Survived and Punished members initially learned about Bresha Meadows: Survived and Punished co-founder Hyejin Shim read a story online about Meadows’ arrest. She sent the story to the Survived and Punished email listserv, asking if anyone knew people doing domestic violence or other advocacy work in Ohio. From there, members became more involved, forming the #FreeBresha defense campaign and working with Meadows’ family members, attorney, and advocates to ensure that the then-14-year-old did not face life in prison.
Initial news accounts might be inaccurate or incomplete, but readers can question what other factors have not been reported. “If you hear of a person who is a victim of domestic violence and that they’re being prosecuted, follow that lead and see what it’s about,” she said. “See what that [charge] is about. Maybe that person needs your help.” Survived and Punished created a toolkit, or online resource, about how to form defense campaigns for abuse survivors facing prosecution.
Finally, Kaba advises those who want to get involved to look at efforts around the country to change laws around criminalizing abuse survivors. In New York state, advocates are pushing the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. The act would not prevent prosecutors from charging abuse survivors but it would allow judicial discretion in sentencing. If the alleged illegal action is a direct result of abuse, the judge would be allowed to issue a shorter sentence than the sentencing guidelines recommendation. The judge can also choose to send the survivor to an alternative-to-incarceration program, avoiding prison altogether. For survivors already sentenced to prison, the bill allows them to apply for resentencing. Advocates estimate that hundreds of currently incarcerated survivors could be eligible for resentencing, should the bill become law.
In May 2017, the bill passed the state assembly. The Senate version is currently in the state’s Codes Committee.
Ultimately, whether it’s providing support services for abuse survivors before their entanglement in the legal system; forming defense campaigns to ensure that they don’t face decades or lifetimes in prison; or advocating for legal changes that stop criminalizing and imprisoning survivors, more efforts are needed to disrupt a system leading to girls and women behind bars. Kaba said, “We need more people to do the work.”