Broken Justice: Everyday Violence and the Global Poor


Last August, a young woman in Josephine County, Oregon was at home when her ex-boyfriend attempted to violently break his way into her home. She immediately called 911 and this is what happened:

Victim: “My ex-boyfriend is trying to break into my house. I’m not letting him in but he’s like, tried to break down the door and he’s tried to break into one of the windows.”

Dispatcher: I don’t have anybody to send out there.

Victim: OK

Dispatcher: Umm, obviously if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away? Or do you know if he is intoxicated or anything?

Victim: I’ve already asked him. I’ve already told him I was calling you.  He’s broken in before, busted down my door, assaulted me.     

Dispatcher: Uh-huh

Victim: Um, yeah so –

Dispatcher: Is there any way you can safely leave the residence?

Victim: No, I can’t because he blocking pretty much my only way out...

Dispatcher: Well, the only thing I can do is give you some advice, and call the sheriff’s office tomorrow. Obviously, if he comes inside and unfortunately has a weapon or is trying to cause you physical harm, that’s a...different story.  You know the sheriff’s office doesn’t work up there.  I don’t have anybody to send.

Because of budget cuts in the county, the woman was left to fend for herself. Tragically, the man succeeded in breaking in and beat, choked and raped her. He was later arrested, but only after inflicting serious, and potentially preventable, damage.

It's almost impossible to fathom that this happened in the United States, but the sad reality is that this is how many of the world’s four billion poor live every day. Last weekend Victor Boutros delivered the Center for Public Justice’s annual Kuyper Lecture, and he used this example from Oregon to highlight “what happens when there is no law enforcement in your area- and this, this, is the experience of the world’s poor.”

[Download a full transcript of the lecture here.]

Boutros is a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice and recently co-authored The Locust Effect with International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen. As Boutros noted during the Kuyper Lecture, the book explores “the hidden plague of our era that is quietly devastating the hope of the poor- the everyday reality of common, lawless violence-the relentless way the average poor person in the developing world is threatened with being enslaved, imprisoned, beaten, raped or robbed.”


"We have failed to build a platform of basic law enforcement in poor communities that will allow the poorest to hold on to the benefits of our aid." Photo via Kibae Park, UN Photo.

The international community has done an incredible amount of good in the developing world for decades- in many cases reducing extreme poverty and providing critical resources like food, clean water, and life saving medication. However, Haugen and Boutros’ point is this: without a functioning law enforcement system, many other anti-poverty efforts are futile.

“It’s not that poverty alleviation efforts haven’t worked at all – clearly they have; but we seem to be reaching the limits of what can be achieved without finally addressing the most intimidating aspect of poverty – the plague of everyday violence,” Boutros said during the lecture.

The most common types of “everyday violence” that those living in extreme poverty face include gender violence (sexual violence and domestic abuse), forced labor, police abuse, and violent land theft.

“What is becoming manifest is that after 50 years and three trillion dollars of poverty alleviation efforts, we have skipped a step.  We have failed to build a platform of basic law enforcement in poor communities that will allow the poorest to hold on to the benefits of our aid,” Boutros said. “This is why we have to start talking differently about poverty- and start doing something differently as well.”

Boutros explained that this begins with changing the conversation about poverty, pressing the UN to make violence prevention a top priority in the Millennium Development Goals, and supporting “local champions” of rule of law in those countries.  (The Locust Effect goes into much more detail about what this looks like.) But what does “doing something different” look like to the average 20 or 30 something living in the U.S., interested, and perhaps active, in issues of poverty?

As Haugen said at a recent American Enterprise Institute event, “We breathe the invisible oxygen of law enforcement every day.” We aren’t forced to think about just how valuable a functioning system of law is until we’re confronted with a story like that out of Josephine County.

And that is why it’s concerning that only 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, the very age group so passionate about issues of justice, say they will definitely vote in November’s midterm elections.


Good government requires an active, involved citizenry. Too often we assess government only on the basis of efficiency (or lack of it), and not with the normative lens it deserves. Government is designed to do more than just “get things done”, instead it is an institution established to promote and protect public justice.

If we are passionate about alleviating domestic or international poverty, yet fail to fulfill our duties as citizens in our own country, we have skipped a crucial step. In the same way that Boutros and Haugen argue that by overlooking the plague of violence the international aid community has skipped a step, we do ourselves and our neighbors a disservice if we are unaware or uninterested in what’s happening in our local community. 

Budget cuts in Josephine County prevented police from responding to the woman who called 911 for help. That is a citizenship issue. It involves conversations about taxes, law enforcement, and budgets. Those aren’t flashy subjects, but they are just as vital and deserving of our attention as any other cause.

Functioning public justice systems are literally a matter of life and death for the world’s poor. In the U.S. we are fortunate to have a system of law that, for the most part, protects us from violence. However it’s our responsibility to uphold that standard and to encourage our friends, neighbors and elected officials to be a part of a political community that accepts nothing less. In doing so we can further the good work of coming alongside of our global neighbors who are crippled by the daily plague of violence.

-Katie Thompson is the Online Editor at the Center for Public Justice. Born and raised in New Jersey, a former college student in Boston, and now a young professional in Washington, DC, she's fairly certain she likes the East Coast. And New York sports.