(AlessandroPhoto via iStock)

On Wednesday, June 2, Denise Mann was resentenced under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA). While the law was designed to meet the needs of survivors like Mann, the success of her petition was hard-won. Despite the potential of the law to positively impact the lives of defendant- and incarcerated-survivors of domestic abuse, it’s use has been uneven and subject to the court officials’ whims and biases. 

As reported by Prism, Mann’s petition to be resentenced under the law had been opposed by Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz, who argued both that Mann provided insufficient evidence of past abuse and that those claims of abuse were unrelated to the offense for which she was sentenced. It’s an argument commonly used to oppose DVSJA cases and illustrates how the courts continue to misunderstand the effects of domestic violence.

In a surprising turn of events, however, the DA’s office withdrew their initial opposition to Mann’s case a few days before closing arguments. Mann was resentenced to five years of incarceration with four years of community supervision. Because Mann has already served seven and a half years at New York’s Bedford Hill Correctional Facility, her current sentence will be just a year and a half of supervision. She’ll be returning home to her family later this June.

Mann is looking forward to reconnecting with her mother before she relocates to Charlotte, North Carolina, to live with her sister. While her family ties are close, she’s aware of how her time at Bedford has strained them. 

“It’s like we know each other but don’t know each other,” she said of her relationship with her sister. 

Incarceration has perhaps most profoundly impacted her relationship with her four children—an issue common for parents inside prison facilities. The experience inspired Mann to create a nonprofit organization to help keep children connected with their incarcerated parents. The idea was first conceived of as a final project for a business management course that she took at Bedford through Marymount Manhattan College. 

“Basic government agencies fail our children by not caring for their well-being,” wrote Mann in an email to Prism. “My program is designed to prevent these type of things from occurring buy[sp] being hands on with the children, do recreational things with them, help build up their self-esteem, keep them in touch with their parent [or] guardian that’s incarcerated through mail, phone calls, video visits, regular visits as well as helping continue their education and also focus on physical and mental health.”

The idea behind this dream and passion comes from Mann’s acute knowledge of family separation, having seen it both as an incarcerated parent as well as a teen who went through the foster care system. Mann hopes to finalize and launch the nonprofit after her release, but her first order of business will be to “cleanse myself of Bedford’s stench before I go anywhere.”

Mann’s case may have more far-reaching effects beyond her personal future. It represents a major victory for DVSJA advocates and it’s one that Jonathan McCoy, Mann’s lawyer from New York’s Legal Aid Society, hopes will inspire other courts to follow suit. 

“With the decision, the court recognized that my client suffered enormous trauma in her life as a victim of domestic violence and did not deserve years of punitive incarceration,” said McCoy in an email to Prism. “Our criminal legal system has long ignored the damaging role trauma has played in the lives of our clients, as well as the further harm jail and prison causes. We urge other courts and district attorneys to provide similar relief under the Domestic Violence Survivors’ Justice Act.”

The court’s decision to accept Mann’s petition for resentencing under the DVSJA may profoundly impact how this relatively new law is implemented in the future. It also might be a signal that judges and prosecutors are shifting their understanding of survivor-defendants and how abuse doesn’t exist in a vacuum but instead can permeate into all corners of our lives and shape the decisions people make. That more complex and holistic view of those who enter into the criminal legal system—whether as “victims” or “offenders”—may be difficult for some, but it’s necessary in working towards a vision of real justice. 

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.