By Celia Clark/WSKG

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed a law that will allow courts to consider a woman’s experience of domestic violence when deciding her sentence. The law retroactively allows incarcerated women to apply for reconsideration.

Holly Coombs was incarcerated for over 30 years. She spent 12 1/2 years in a New York prison. She was convicted of assault and robbery, but Coombs said she was also traumatized by both childhood and domestic abuse.

“Had this law been available when I was incarcerated,” she said, “it would have allowed me to avoid decades of further trauma. And I do believe its inception now may, kind of be the lifesaver of numerous women that I left behind in prison.”

Coombs has been free for over a year.

Researchers estimate that over 80% of incarcerated women suffer some form of domestic or sexual violence.

Amanda Bashi thinks that number is low. She’s a law professor at Cornell University. She and her students work to free survivors of gender-based violence.

Bashi said the trauma suffered by women like Holly Coombs when they are children and teenagers, plays a big part in the crimes they go on to commit.

“That trauma,” Bashi said, “leads them to make decisions that those of us with adult, non-traumatized brains might not make. And they end up facing prosecution and prison for those decisions. And, in that way it concretely criminalized their trauma.”

Survivor Holly Coombs said prison is no place to heal.

In Tompkins County in the Finger Lakes area, the Advocacy Center provides shelter and services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Education Director Kristi Taylor said most of the women who admit to fighting back now feel ashamed.

“Our culture likes to label people as ‘good victims’ and ‘bad victims,’” Taylor said, “and the good victims are the ones who are cowered in the corner. So, when you have a victim that goes, ‘No! I knew this was going to happen, I knew they were going to hurt me and I fought. I fought back,’ our culture and our systems don’t look kindly on that.”

Taylor hopes New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act will also lead to more prosecution of abusive men because women can now give a full account of their situations.

The Advocacy Center in Tompkins County says they receive over 1,500 calls for help every year from abused women.

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