Evaluation of trends in arrests for violence, or trends in violent crime more generally, should consider the development of extraordinary domestic-violence law and its effects. Arrests for domestic violence accounted for an estimated 58% of arrests for violence in the U.S. in 2010. The share of domestic-violence arrests in all arrests for violence was much lower in 1980: 5% or 10% is probably a reasonable figure. Since 1980, arrests for domestic violence have increased greatly and now account for a majority of arrests for violence.
In aggregate, arrests for domestic violence and for other interpersonal violence are nearly all arrests for assault. Among arrests for domestic violence, 73%, 14%, and 5% are arrests for simple assault, aggravated assault (a more serious assault, e.g. an assault that draws blood), and intimidation (included in the FBI’s definition of “other assault”), respectively. Another 8% of domestic-violence arrests are under offenses other than simple assault, aggravated assault, and intimidation. The FBI’s Violent Crime Index includes only aggravated assault, along with the offenses of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, and robbery. Comparing domestic violence arrests to all arrests for interpersonal violence requires adding to the Violent Crime Index the new offense category “other assault.” Other assault includes simple assault as well as intimidation and stalking. Assaults (aggravated assaults and other assaults) account for about 89% of arrests for interpersonal violence of all types. Hence FBI statistics on arrests for assaults, both aggravated assaults and other assaults, are quantitatively a reasonably good aggregate proxy for arrests for domestic violence plus arrests for other interpersonal violence.
Increase in arrests for domestic violence drove the increase in arrests for all interpersonal violence from 1980 to 2011. Arrests for assaults increased 52% from 1980 to 2011. However, arrests for assaults other than domestic violence assaults decreased an estimated 35% during the period. The difference was the rapid rise in arrests for domestic violence.
More frequent police action against relatively low severity interpersonal violence is associated with a lower ratio of men to women arrested. Arrests for domestic violence typically occur in circumstances without serious injury and without use of weapons. From 1980 to 2011, arrests for “other assault” relative to arrests for all other interpersonal violence rose from 1.0 to 2.3. Across that same period, the ratio of men to women arrested for assault fell from 7.2 to 3.0. Police action against domestic violence has been biased against men. Relatively low severity interpersonal violence tends to differ less by gender. Greater frequency of arrest for relatively low severity interpersonal violence has pushed arrest prevalence toward gender equality.
Since 1980, the number of persons held in U.S. prisons and jails has massively increased. Domestic violence has always been a public concern. Since about 1980, domestic violence policy shifted to more expansive, more aggressive criminalization of domestic violence. That change in domestic violence policy has been central to the rise of mass incarceration.