Domestic Violence Large Share of Justice System Activity

face of a prisoner

Domestic violence accounts for a large share of justice system activity addressing personal violence. Reasonable evaluation of the relationship between public discourse, justice system functioning, and persons in prison cannot ignore domestic violence.

Domestic violence is addressed in the justice system in part through police actions. A highly significant police action is making an arrest. In the U.S., legal grounds for making an arrest vary by state. U.S. policy initiatives over the past two decades have focused on encouraging arrest for domestic violence. In response to police officers’ wide range of discretion in making an arrest, most states have enacted mandatory arrest policies that require police officers to make an arrest if there is probable cause to believe that domestic violence occurred.

Domestic violence arrests have increased greatly in the U.S. since the early 1980s. For example, in New Jersey in 1983, domestic violence arrests amounted to 13% of all arrests for interpersonal violence. By 2001, that share had risen to 67%. About a million arrests for domestic violence occurred across the U.S. in 2010. Domestic violence isn’t a special case of policing violence. Arrests of adults for domestic violence in the U.S. currently amount to 58% of arrests of adults for all types of interpersonal violence.

A large share of persons incarcerated for violence are incarcerated for domestic violence. In the U.S. in 2003, 42% of jail inmates who had been convicted of violence had been convicted of domestic violence. The corresponding figure for domestic-violence convictions among prison inmates convicted of violence is 20%. Jails hold persons awaiting case disposition and persons sentenced to short incarceration spells, typically shorter than a year. Prisons hold persons sentenced to long incarceration spells, typically longer than a year. Domestic violence encompasses less serious forms of violence than does non-domestic violence. That’s reflected in the declining share of domestic violence among all violence in moving from the criminal-justice stages of arrest, incarceration in jail, and incarceration in prison.

In addition to incarceration, the justice system also addresses domestic violence through restraining orders. Over the past two decades, restraining orders typically have been renamed and re-described as “protective orders” or “orders of protection.” Protective order and order of protection are periphrastic terms. Restraining/protective orders legally restrain a person’s freedom to communicate, restrain her liberty to be with her children, restrain her inmate relations, and restrain her ability to use her property, including live in her house. To the extent that the restrained person obeys the restraining order, the order protects the designated victim, in specific ways, against the restrained person.

Restraining orders have become common. In the U.S., a person can fill out a pre-printed form to get a restraining order. Restraining orders are also commonly issued as standard procedure following arrests for domestic violence. Roughly 1.7 million domestic violence restraining orders were issued in response to personal applications or arrests in the U.S. in 2008. On any given day, roughly 1.2 million persons are subject to domestic-violence restraining orders. That’s equivalent to about a quarter of the number of persons in the U.S. under criminal justice community supervision (probation and parole).^ An estimated quarter-million persons per year are incarcerated for violations of restraining orders. Restraining orders are a major form of justice system action.

Public discourse concerning domestic violence has been sensationally prejudicial against men. Violence against men attracts little public concern, even though by a reasonable measure violence against men exceeds violence against women by 55%. At the same time, the wildly inaccurate claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women has repeatedly been asserted in judicial opinions, Congressional documents, law journal articles, and newspaper articles and by criminal justice agencies over the past quarter century. Gender stereotyping of domestic violence is pervasive. Services for victims of domestic violence are sex-segregated and highly unequal. A U.S. Supreme Court opinion has recognized that domestic violence allegations account for a large share of police activity. Nonetheless, the sensationally prejudicial treatment of domestic violence is widely ignored, as if it isn’t relevant to understanding justice system functioning as a whole.

Person held in jails and prisons are highly disproportionately men. The sex ratio of persons experiencing state-directed punishment has varied widely through history. Within the U.S. in 2010, ten men per woman were in prison or jail. That large gender inequality, along with the extraordinarily high level of incarceration in the U.S., should heighten concern about gender bias in law and administration of justice.

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