A New York law is giving survivors of domestic violence a chance to get their prison sentences reduced if they can show they committed crimes largely because of the abuse they endured. Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah last week helped the first defendant in her area get a sentence reduced since the state enacted the law in 2019. She spoke to WNYC about the case.

Michael Hill: Would you explain what the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act is and what it aims to address?

Mimi Rocah: So it's known as the DVSJA. It was passed in 2019, and it allows currently incarcerated survivors of abuse, whether it's sexual, psychological, or physical abuse, to file a motion with the court requesting a reduced sentence if they can show that their abuse – and this is kind of the key legal language – significantly contributed to their criminal conduct.

So, that's sort of legal mumbo jumbo, but it's really an important evolution in the way that the criminal justice system recognizes the role of domestic violence and trauma with survivors of abuse.

MH: Jonitha Alston is the first person in Westchester to be resentenced under this law. You supported her motion. Tell us about her case.

MR: Jonitha was convicted of a homicide of stabbing her live-in boyfriend in 2016. The killing – and these facts are undisputed, found by us, argued by the defense, and submitted to the court – that she killed her boyfriend after he became physical with her then-5-year-old daughter.

And there's an established history of abuse by him, of her. She pled guilty back in 2017 to manslaughter in the first degree and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison. She came forward this past year in 2021 after I came into office, and filed a motion under this new act, the DVSJA. We did a very careful review with a jointly retained expert, a forensic psychologist who made unequivocal findings that her history of abuse really was linked to, and a significant cause of, the commission of her crime.

So we agreed to recommend a reduced sentence. It’s not no sentence. Her sentence was reduced from 12 years to five years. That's the maximum allowed under the DVSJA. So it's not a free pass, but it's something that really recognizes the circumstances of the abuse she suffered and the circumstances of what was happening at the time when she did commit this crime with her daughter.

MH: The law was passed back before the pandemic in 2019. Yet it's only now that we're starting to hear about cases going before a judge across the state. Thirty-two people have now been resentenced. Is there a reason it took a while to gain momentum?

MR: Yeah. That's really a function of COVID, like so many other things. The court system was very much shut down or operating on a sort of as-needed basis for a while, starting in 2020. I think the word has to get out to defendants that this is something they can file a motion under, and then it has to make its way through a process.

It's not something that happens overnight. We take these very seriously, as I'm sure all DAs do. There's significant writing and submissions made to our office, and we do a lot of our own investigation and the expert. So it, that kind of stuff I think has just sort of made its way through the system and as word gets out, we probably will see more of them.

MH: There's been at least one case that your office looked at and decided it should not qualify for resentencing. Why was that one different?

MR: We really do examine all of these very carefully. And in that case that you're referring to – Carla Scott was the defendant – that was a homicide. Every case is different. We opposed that motion for resentencing because whatever domestic violence Scott may have suffered, we found had nothing to do with the crime that she committed. Unlike for Ms. Alston.

MH: You bring a personal history to your work as a prosecutor. Your parents were victims of crime. Tell us how that informs the way you approach these domestic violence cases.

MR: I've spoken publicly before I became a prosecutor in the first place because my own mother was a victim of a rape many, many years ago. And then later I really experienced through them a criminal case where there was a home invasion in the home where I actually grew up as a child.

And so I really try to see things – and that gave me an even greater perspective to see things – through the eyes of victims. And obviously if we're talking about domestic violence, we have to think about not just the impact that that has in the immediate moment, but the lasting trauma of crime – of any crime, but especially domestic violence. And that's really what this law takes into account. I try to bring that perspective for victims to so many of the things we do in our office, as do the prosecutors in my office. That's why we're all there. We care about victims and I think this law is a great way to recognize that.

And be able to do something about it when we find that there's a real connection between the trauma that they've experienced and a crime that's been committed.

MH: Mimi Rocah is the district attorney in Westchester County.