Despite the remarkable reliance on the Internet as a source of information, we have yet to fully take advantage of it in our movement against domestic violence. Information is used as a weapon in the battle against domestic violence in several limited ways. Yet there is still more we can do with information and, specifically, the Internet, in combating domestic violence. The Scarlet Letter proposal seeks to empower potential victims of domestic violence with information so that they themselves can make choices that will avoid years of suffering and abuse. The idea is to allow public access to the data registries maintained by state governments that contain the identities of the batterers who either are or have been the subjects of final orders of protection. Today almost all fifty states have such data registries in place. In some of them, public access already exists, albeit usually with certain restrictions; in other states, there is no public access at all. The novelty of the idea is not in the compilation and storage of the information; rather, the uniqueness of the proposal is its call to expand access and to publicize widely the fact of such access as a way to reduce the future incidence of domestic violence.
This proposal is inspired by several different developments in American society and in criminal law, including the increasing use of the Internet to gain information and form judgments about others. The proposal also calls for the criminal justice system to function as a system that not only punishes but also empowers. It does so by using the Internet to expand and deepen the reach of public condemnation and to be more specific in its condemnation. Enhanced public condemnation will deter more tendencies toward violence and provide greater incentives to rehabilitate. Most importantly, it will reduce intimate violence. By doing so, the proposal addresses the stagnancy of the domestic violence movement, particularly in the massive infrastructure states have built upon orders of protection. Building on these trends, this proposal warrants further examination. This article begins that discussion.
This discussion will review not only the benefits, but also the negative implications of greater public access to official information about individuals. Many of these implications are not new, but have been part of similar pro-access ideas in other non-Internet contexts. This article discusses these longstanding interests as well as some new ones that are specific to the domestic violence context. Part II begins with a description of the current state of domestic violence and the movement against it in the United States. It takes a closer look at the history of orders of protection, the massive legal structures that have developed around them, and the disturbing ramifications of the Supreme Court case, Castle Rock v. Gonzalez. Part III lays out in greater detail the proposal and its underlying vision for criminal justice. This article makes the argument for why public access to stigmatizing information is appropriate and sensible in the domestic violence context. Given what we know about the realities of domestic violence, a preemptive, preventive measure is a promising new direction. Part IV then discusses the various concerns raised by the proposal. They range from concerns for the victims of domestic violence on an individual as well as collective level to worries about the infringements of the rights of batterers and the implications for society. Finally, part V offers a brief conclusion.