Prosecution & Disposition of Domestic-Violence Cases

face of a prisoner

Administering justice under law is a core function of government. Intimate and domestic relations are vital to personal flourishing. Government administration of justice with respect to intimate and domestic relations should be at the pinnacle of public discussion of democratic self-government. Instead, public discussion of domestic violence is a grotesque morass of mis-information, poor reasoning, and anti-men gender bigotry.

One feature of rhetoric supporting domestic violence emergency law is the claim that the criminal justice system treats domestic violence less seriously than other forms of violence. That claim is part of mythic history of domestic-violence criminalization. Generating statistics that apparently support that claim can be done easily, because criminal case disposition statistics are difficult to aggregate and interpret consistently and meaningfully.

The best available data indicates that the U.S. criminal justice system treats domestic violence more seriously than other forms of violence. In 2008, a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Special Report examined state court processing of felony violence cases (sexual assault and aggravated assault) filed in 15 large, U.S. urban counties in May, 2002. It compared the domestic-violence cases to the non-domestic-violence cases. The total number of cases studied was 2629. Cases resulting in conviction relative to all cases was 61% for the domestic-violence cases versus 54% for the non-domestic-violence cases. A BJS study comparing family felony assault to non-family felony in 11 large U.S. counties in May, 2000, similarly found a larger conviction share for family violence: 71% for family violence compared to 61% for non-family violence. Other statistical differences also indicate greater severity in addressing domestic violence: in the 2002 felony case sample, only 7% of the domestic violence cases were disposed through prosecutorial diversion or deferred adjudication, compared to 21% of non-domestic-violence cases. In addition, 48% of felony domestic-violence defendants were detained until case disposition, compared to 40% of felony non-domestic-violence defendants. Among felony defendants released pre-trial, 44% of domestic-violence defendants were released under a restraining order, compared to only 4% of non-domestic-violence defendants.

Reported conviction shares in other studies vary widely. A study of domestic-violence case processing across seven U.S. cities in 1998 found misdemeanor domestic-violence case conviction shares varying from 19% to 96%. Because domestic-violence misdemeanors cover a wide range of behaviors, differences in charging practices could easily account for large differences in conviction shares. A BJS study of intimate-partner violence cases found a conviction share of 37% in jurisdictions where the prosecutor screened cases after the defendant’s initial court appearance and a conviction share of 72% in jurisdictions where the prosecutor screened cases prior to the defendant’s first appearance. The large effects of case-screening and counting-rule differences make consistent, meaningful conviction shares difficult to obtain.

Comparisons of conviction rates for domestic-violence offenses versus non-domestic offenses depend significantly on other, easily obscured factors. Violations of domestic-violence restraining orders are relatively easy to prosecute. If such offenses are included with domestic-violence cases, they likely push conviction shares up. Comparing domestic-violence conviction shares to conviction shares that include non-violent crimes, e.g. burglary, larceny, and fare-beating in the transit system, doesn’t make for a direct comparison of crimes that the justice system categorizes as violent.^ ^ A claim that domestic-violence cases are less likely to result in conviction than non-domestic cases is less meaningful the less one understands the characteristics of the offenses being compared.

Comprehensive, national U.S. criminal case-processing statistics aren’t available. In a given year, roughly a million arrests for domestic violence occur in the U.S. Hence analysis of a few hundred domestic-violence cases, or even a few thousand cases, is a small sample of cases across highly heterogeneous local criminal-justice jurisdictions.

The most comprehensive review available of domestic-violence case processing supports a conviction share about 50%. A 2009 meta-analysis examined 135 English-language reports on prosecution and conviction for intimate-partner violence. Intimate-partner violence, a sub-set of domestic violence, is more skewed toward women victims and men offenders than is domestic-violence as a whole. Because the criminal justice system is biased toward convicting men, focusing on intimate-partner violence rather than domestic violence likely biases upward slightly the conviction share. That effect is probably smaller than effects of reporting inconsistencies. The authors of the meta-analysis attempted to standardize the calculation of conviction shares across studies. They explicitly recognized the importance of alternate case dispositions such as deferred prosecution. They also considered effects of outliers and provided different ways of weighting the studies. They found convictions as a share of prosecutions, excluding incidence-based figures with outliers, to be about 50%.^ That’s a reasonable estimate for domestic-violence convictions as a share of cases filed.

While criminal-case disposition statistics are in general complex, domestic violence generates particularly complex case statistics. Much domestic violence is in fact mutual violence. Some jurisdictions recognize this reality in particular cases and arrest all parties committing domestic violence, usually two in a “dual arrest.” Hence the same person can be both a victim and a suspect. Domestic-violence police statistics from a city in North Carolina also show that over time domestic violence victims and offenders often change positions.^ Prosecutors and judges face difficult case-processing accounting in doing justice amid the complicated relationships among domestic-violence cases.

The claim that domestic violence is taken less seriously than offer offenses is inconsistent with highly sensationalized public reporting of domestic violence. Grotesquely exaggerated and sensational claims about domestic violence against women have been prevalent across public discourse for decades. Public officials are intensely concerned about being publicly blamed for a domestic violence homicide. The vast majority of homicides, in which five times as many men die as do women, attract relatively little public attention.

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