Donna Coker: A Champion of Social Justice

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Donna Coker

Professor Donna Coker (Photo by Joshua Prezant)

Whether challenging the myths of domestic violence, the injustice of mass incarceration or the biases of crime and punishment, Professor Donna Coker is a champion of social justice. Coker, a Dean's Distinguished Scholar who focuses her teaching and research on public interest issues, credits Miami Law for helping her make a difference. "Our law school has given me strong support through the years for my work on issues relating to criminal justice reform, gender, racial, and social equality, and restorative justice," she said.

Two decades ago, Coker was one of the few legal researchers who expressed concerns about "crime-centered" approaches to domestic violence. "Mandatory arrest and prosecution policies gave victims no discretion and treated all cases the same, regardless of severity or context," she said.

Today, she is a nationally recognized expert on policies relating to gender violence, and, in particular, intimate partner violence and sexual harm. Her widely-cited research illustrates disparities in the treatment of women marginalized by poverty, race, and immigration status.

In 2014, Coker co-organized a multidisciplinary national conference, "Converge! Reimagining the Movement to End Gender Violence," at Miami Law that examined alternatives to crime-centered approaches, and addressed structural inequality. Since then, she has been co-investigator for a national survey that uncovered significant police bias based on gender, race, class, immigration status, and LGBTQ identity in responding to domestic violence and incidents of sexual assault.

In collaboration with the non-profit, MediaforChange, developed by University of Miami Communications Professor Sanjeev Chatterjee, Coker, and graduate student Ahjané Billingsley, co-developed a multimedia project designed to question the crime-centered approaches to gender violence. Coker is also a co-author on a forthcoming textbook, Social Justice, Law and Gender Violence.

Reflecting on her work, Coker said, "I want to give law students the tools to think differently about these cases while challenging the assumptions and biases that shape our responses to gender violence."

A Journey into Law

Coker grew up in Searcy, Arkansas, where her father, Bobby Coker, was Dean of Education at Harding University. Her mother was also an educator, teaching elementary school children and directing the University's curriculum lab. "At an early age, I decided on a career in social work, because I felt it would give me an opportunity to do work on equality in terms of poverty, race, and gender," she said.

The national women's movement and the political climate in Arkansas also influences Coker. Her father chaired Bill Clinton's last gubernatorial campaign and served on an educational reform committee led by Hillary Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Harding University, Coker worked as an intern—the only full-time staff person—at the state's first domestic violence shelter in Little Rock. She later worked at a telephone crisis center and as a Legal Services paralegal, helping women deal with violent and abusive relationships.

She earned her bachelor's degree in social work in 1978 from Harding, followed by a master's degree in social work from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She also married and moved to Hawaii with her husband, Tom Dukowitz, M.D., who served as a doctor in the Navy. While in Hawaii, she was the coordinator of a community-based domestic violence project in Honolulu, overseeing advocacy and support for more than 100 women a year.

In 1988, the family moved to Palo Alto, California, so that Coker could enroll in Stanford Law School. By then, she and her husband were raising 4- and 6-year-old sons, Zacchary and Jacob—an experience that has made her keenly aware of the challenges and rewards of being a parent-student. After earning her J.D. degree at Stanford Law School, Coker worked in corporate litigation for a large West Coast law firm.

Coker soon began teaching a course on domestic violence at Stanford Law School and Santa Clara University School of Law. She joined the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence in state lobbying efforts, providing expert testimony, and writing policy papers.

In 1995, Coker joined the Miami Law faculty, where she teaches Evidence, Substantive Criminal Law, and Social Justice Lawyering. She served as an Associate Dean of Miami Law from 2005 to 2009 and was recognized with the UM Law Golden Apple Teaching Award in 2014-15.

Addressing the Misconceptions of Domestic Violence

Coker says there are many misconceptions about domestic violence, beginning with the idea that merely raising a victim's self-esteem will solve the problem. "Sometimes deemed 'the Oprah effect,' the idea is that all the victim has to do is decide that she doesn't want to live like this anymore, and the abuse will end," Coker said. "But this ignores the risks of separation and the lack of resources available to escape violence."

A related problematic belief is a presumption that every victim should separate, added Coker, "but not all intimate partner violence experiences are the same." Some partners who use violence do change, and the violence stops. "Some relationships are worth saving."

Coker notes that there are similar myths regarding campus sexual assault. Rather than being serial "predators" who are not amenable to intervention efforts, longitudinal research demonstrates that most campus sexual assaulters do not repeat their offending over time. "Intervention efforts that focus on changing the factors correlated with assault can have a big impact," she added.

Coker says it's also time to examine traditional thinking about crime and punishment more generally. "There has been continued growth in punitive responses to many types of social problems," she said. "Instead, we should look at public health and economic justice responses, rather than magnifying the problems in our society through a policy of mass incarceration."

Incarceration is harmful to inmates who are subject to deprivation and violence with only limited access to rehabilitative programs, she said. "These incarceration policies are deeply racist—although actors within the system are often not intentionally racist."

Further, mass incarceration deepens racial and economic inequality. "One outcome of this misguided policy is that imprisoned adults are unable to earn wages or provide childcare for their families," she added. "Licensing restrictions and job discrimination makes it hard for them to find work when they are released, creating a long-term negative economic impact on families and communities.”

Advocating Restorative Justice

Coker has long been at the forefront of the restorative justice movement as an alternative to mass incarceration. "Rather than a focus on punishment, restorative justice looks at who has been harmed," she said. "What do they need? And who is responsible for meeting those needs?"

She is an expert in restorative approaches to gender violence. Her empirical study of domestic violence cases in Navajo peacemaking, published in 1999, was groundbreaking. She has written about restorative justice approaches to campus sexual harm, was a panel chair and speaker at the 2017 National Association of Community & Restorative Justice Conference, and she taught a summer short course in the Masters in Restorative Justice Program at Vermont Law School in 2019.

While restorative justice remains controversial, Coker says it can open the door to finding more effective remedies in domestic violence cases, such as reparations for the victim and a rehabilitative plan for the person who caused harm. "In restorative justice, the person who caused harm has to face the victim and the victim's friends and family members. They have to take responsibility for their actions in a way that is not available in the usual criminal justice response." The result better meets the needs of many survivors.

"Restorative justice also has a place in the university setting including in some cases of sexual harm." Coker emphasizes that restorative justice approaches require that the survivor voluntarily seek this response and that the person who committed harm accept responsibility for his or her actions.

As a teacher, Coker encourages Miami Law students to rethink their assumptions about the nation's criminal justice system, and consider their role in promoting social justice and protecting democratic values. And, as an avid bird watcher, Coker has one additional piece of advice for law students: "Get outside more! South Florida has unique natural beauty, and experiencing that beauty can be a source of real joy."

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