Professor Leigh Goodmark gives voice to criminalized survivors in new book

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In her new book, Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism, Maryland Carey Law Professor Leigh Goodmark argues for dismantling the U.S.’s carceral system and reimagining how justice is achieved. This is the only way, she asserts, to protect criminalized survivors of gender-based violence who are incarcerated—brutalized and dehumanized—in alarming numbers. 

“Abolition is a big ask,” acknowledges the nationally recognized expert on gender violence and the law. Especially for anti-violence advocates who have worked to make the legal system more responsive to gender-based violence since the 1970s. But, Goodmark points out, greater state intervention in cases of intimate partner violence, rape, sexual assault, and trafficking has led to the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration of victims, particularly women of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people. “The carceral state, which purports to protect these survivors,” she says, “is, instead, doing them indescribable damage.” 

Goodmark knows from firsthand experience gained during a quarter century as a lawyer for survivors of gender violence and trafficking. For the past 10 years, she and her students in the Maryland Carey Law Gender Violence Clinic, have provided direct representation to survivors who are incarcerated. In the book, she draws from the stories of those clients whom she says were “criminalized by survival.” Some were jailed when they resisted testifying against abusive partners. Others are incarcerated after defending themselves against their attackers. Still others are paying the price for acts they were forced into through violence and threats. 

The answer, Goodmark concludes, is in abolition feminism, a stance she has grown into over the past several years, as she became increasingly horrified by police violence, prison conditions, mass incarceration, and a system that disproportionally punishes Black individuals. Proponents of abolition feminism submit that the criminal legal system maintains a racist order of social control through violence. They seek to build a new system from the ground up. 

The law school community celebrated Goodmark on January 19 at her investiture as the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law. In her remarks, Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins praised Goodmark for "amazing work on behalf of people who have been subjected to unthinkable abuse.” Crowds of students, colleagues, and former clinic clients packed the Ceremonial Courtroom to hear Goodmark’s talk on Imperfect Victims. When she concluded the lecture with the words, “We built the carceral system and we can dismantle it and build something healing in its place,” the audience rose to offer a standing ovation. 

As well as being the founding director of the Gender Violence Clinic at Maryland Carey Law, Goodmark teaches courses in family law and gender and the law. She is the author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence and A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System and is co-editor of Comparative Perspectives on Gender Violence: Lessons from Efforts Worldwide. Her scholarship has appeared in many prestigious journals, including the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law ReviewHarvard Journal of Law and Gender, and Yale Journal on Law and Feminism. She is a graduate of Yale University and Stanford Law School. 

Goodmark’s responsibilities also include being co-director of Maryland Carey Law’s renowned Clinical Law Program, a position she has held since 2019. Her investiture kicked off a yearlong celebration of the program, which marks its 50th anniversary in 2023. 

Released January 31, Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book from the University of California Press.