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Impact of Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling on Criminal Justice Agencies

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By Dr. Ron Wallace, associate professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University

The recent U. S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states will affect many areas of society, including all segments of the criminal justice system. While the full impact of this ruling will take some time to sort out, there are several immediate issues facing criminal justice agencies.

Same-sex marriage and challenges for police agencies

The level of impact will vary based upon pre-existing legislation and views within different states. For example, criminal justice agencies in states where same-sex marriage has been legalized for several years may have already addressed many of the issues facing agencies in other states where same-sex unions were not previously recognized. However, here are a few of the most obvious issues that criminal justice agencies must address in light of this new court ruling.

Updating Forms
Any form used by criminal justice agencies that collects information about spouse and/or marital status will need to be updated. This includes updates to paper and electronic forms and processing systems. This might seem like an easy fix on the surface, but often the process associated with printing new forms and/or updating computer systems can be cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive.

Sensitivity Training
Ensuring that criminal justice professionals properly address situations involving same-sex marriages may require additional sensitivity training. This may be especially relevant in areas of the country where the recent ruling results in significant changes to cultural ways of thinking. Agencies must recognize that failing to deal with same-sex couples the same way as heterosexual couples has the potential to open the door for discrimination-based lawsuits. Criminal justice agencies should evaluate whether conducting some type of sensitivity training is an appropriate means of preparing staff.

Conjugal Visits
In situations where inmates are allowed conjugal visits, correctional agencies will need to reevaluate their policies and practices to address same-sex married couples. Similar to the previous issue on sensitivity training, failing to provide the same opportunities of conjugal visits for inmates in same-sex marriages could be grounds for discrimination lawsuits.

Intimate Partner Violence Cases
The recent Supreme Court ruling empowers those individuals who have argued for years that intimate partner violence (also referred to as domestic violence) is not limited to a scenario where the victim is a female and the abuser a male.

[Related Article: Identifying Signs of Intimate Partner Violence]

The legalization of same-sex marriages would appear to also legitimize claims of intimate partner abuse in relationships involving same-sex couples. Criminal justices agencies and courts may need to review their policies and procedures for dealing with these types of cases.

Child Custody Cases
The legalization of same-sex marriages may also result in an increase in child custody cases involving parents of the same sex. This is especially true in cases where two females are involved as parents. Historically, in child custody cases where two unmarried females are parents of the child and one female is the birth mother of the child, the non-birth mother had no legal rights to the child if the couple split since the relationship was not recognized as a legal union.

As the number of same-sex marriages increase, there will be an increase in the number of child custody cases. These are issues that the courts will need to be prepared to address.

Future Research Opportunities
Each of these new issues also presents opportunities for new areas of research within the field of criminal justice. While it may take some time to collect sufficient data to conduct a research study, it is not too early to lay the groundwork for some of these research opportunities. Examples of potential future research include:

  • Comparisons of the number of intimate partner violence law enforcement calls and court cases between heterosexual and same-sex couples:
    • Is there a significant increase in intimate violence calls and cases as same-sex marriages increase?
  • Impact to number of child custody cases, especially with those involving same-sex couples:
    • Is there a significant increase in the number of child custody cases as same-sex marriages increase?
    • How do the determining factors in child custody cases compare between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples?
  • Impact to conjugal prison visits:
    • Do the number of conjugal prison visits increase as same-sex marriages of inmates increase?
    • What, if any, adjustments are necessary for corrections to accommodate same-sex conjugal visits?
  • Impact of sensitivity training to criminal justice professionals:
    • How do the level of complaints in cases involving same-sex couples compare between agencies where sensitivity training has been provided and those agencies that have not provided sensitivity training?

These are just a few examples of the issues facing criminal justice agencies and potential research opportunities. As the number of same-sex marriages increase, other issues and potential areas for research are sure to emerge.

Ron Wallace_v3SMAbout the Author: Dr. Ron Wallace is a criminal justice professional with more than 30 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He has worked with criminal justice agencies nationwide as a consultant on various projects and has several years of teaching experience at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Wallace currently serves as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at American Public University System. He has conducted research and published articles on the topic of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).

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