Abusers Involved with the Criminal Justice System
Only a small proportion of abusers ever get arrested for domestic violence, and those that do very seldom get arrested for their first incident of violence.
The overwhelming majority of abusers who do get arrested are men, (Gender and domestic abuse) and it is men on whom the research focuses. A large proportion of those men fit the following description.
They have histories of criminal domestic violence
- Police reports by their victims.106
- Prior domestic violence arrests or orders of protection against them.107, 108
- Multiple offenses against the same partner.109
- Offenses against multiple
partners. Wilson and Klein examined seven years of entries
in a statewide order of protection (OP) registry,110 and found that, among men who had OPs
- 23% of were serial abusers —high-risk violent offenders who had two or more OPs issued against them for up to eight different victims.
- A one-week sample of defendants included 209 serial abusers who had abused 513 victims over five years.
- Half of those with 4 or more victims abused their newest victims within one year of the most recent OP against them.
Various studies have found different numbers, but all of them are high:
- 40-60% had non-domestic criminal histories. Only 5% had criminal histories that only involved domestic abuse.111
- 91% of men who were subject to an OP had a prior criminal and/or juvenile delinquency record.112
- 78% of offenders whose partners sought an OP had criminal histories, with an average of 13 prior charges.113
- Prior arrest rates in different cities ranged from 59% to 85%.114
Consistent results have been found across numerous studies.
- Men who have even one prior arrest for any crime —domestic or non-domestic— are more likely to be arrested for abusing their partner than those who have never been arrested for anything.117
- Among men who had been arrested for domestic violence at least once, 71% were arrested again over the next nine years, many of them more than once; 62% of the new arrests were for non-domestic crimes.118
- Men arrested for domestic violence who had previously been arrested for any offense were over seven times more likely to be arrested again in the future than those with no prior record.119
- Men who have been arrested for any crime are just as likely to reabuse their partner as those who have been arrested for past domestic violence.120
- Abusers who had been arrested as juveniles were 1.8 times as likely to commit future abuse than those who had no juvenile arrest.121
- Abusers who had been arrested more than once were even more likely to reabuse their partner. Among abusers on probation for domestic violence, 23% of those who were on probation following their first arrest reabused their partner over the course of the next year. This increased to 40% of those with one prior arrest, and 73% of those with more than one prior arrest.122
- Prior non-domestic violence arrests significantly predicted whether men attending abuser programs would be arrested for abusing their partner again.123
They abuse substances
Wilson and Klein’s study compared men who were more heavily involved in substance abuse, were generally more violent, and had longer criminal careers with men who had shorter histories of crime and substance abuse. Only 25% of the former group desisted from IPV after being arrested, vs. 59% of the latter.124 Wilson and Klein consider this to be “evidence that a major proportion of arrested [male] abusers are persistently violent, substance abusing criminals.”125
Wilson and Klein’s study found that:
- Over 10 years, 75% of the men studied were rearrested for subsequent crimes involving substance abuse or violence (including IPV), or both.
- A majority of those involved with the criminal justice system were re-arrested for a domestic violence offense within ten years
- Men arrested for IPV were generally antisocial and persistently criminal. IPV was part of a general pattern of criminal activity.
Implications for Intervention: Criminal Justice Responses to Abusers
Law enforcement and the courts should take into account an individual abuser’s complete criminal history in making decisions about charging, prosecution, and sentencing, and should not treat domestic abuse as a special category of crime.
Evidence shows, however, that this is often not what happens.
When abusers are arrested, they may be:
- Treated as first offenders for their first domestic violence charge, even when they have a long record of arrests for other crimes.126 (We should not be too easily swayed by a abuser who says, “This is the first time this ever happened.” If the incident was severe enough to lead to arrest, this is very unlikely to be true.)
- Charged with offenses that are less serious than what they actually did.
- Allowed to plead to even lower charges or have their case dismissed or adjourned.
- Released pending trial, despite the danger they pose to family members.
Interestingly, data collected over 10 years127 showed that offenders were less likely to repeat their offenses when the police were called — regardless of who called them and whether or not they made an arrest. Arrest didn’t make things either better or worse.
When courts do not consider the context of abusers’ general criminal behavior, they often impose low-level sanctions that don’t match the seriousness of what the individual did. Wilson and Klein found that defendants were usually arrested for a new crime even before the courts disposed of an earlier crime. Courts typically handled both offenses in one disposition, and did not increase the sentence as a result of the new offense.128
The individual may even be more likely to be arrested again for domestic violence if the sanction is too weak to be effective. “The police may arrest a man for domestic assault or other crimes several times before a prosecutor decides to prosecute and a judge decides to convict and punish the man for his criminal acts. Multiple arrests without sanctions may inure the criminal to court processes, affirm his feeling of impunity, and reinforce his criminal behavior.”129
It may take a fairly strong sanction to overcome:
- The immediate, strong rewards gained through abusive behavior.
- The abuser’s belief that he is entitled to control his partner. (An abuser who sees the sanction as unfair or undeserved is unlikely to change his/her behavior as a result of it.)
- Other peoples’ tolerance, and even support, for abusive behavior.
Wilson and Klein130 argue that the sanction of choice, at least with persistently criminal men, should be substantial terms of incarceration, because neither a batterer program nor intense probation supervision is strong enough to be successful. However, the reality is that batterer programs a very weak sanction are often the only one used, even for serious violence, and that they are increasingly being seen as the sanction of choice.
When a sentence is imposed, many courts respond slowly or inconsistently to non-compliance.131
- One-third of the courts studied took over a month to bring offenders back to court after receiving a noncompliance report from an abuser program. These same courts almost all said they responded “consistently” to such noncompliance.132
- Courts often impose even weaker sanctions for subsequent offenses. Only 39% of those who had been jailed for a domestic violence offense were reincarcerated when arrested for a subsequent offense, and over 20% had their new cases dismissed.133
Klein134 has developed a comprehensive list of the practical implications of domestic violence research for criminal justice interventions with abusers. These and other specific ideas for police officers, prosecutors and judges are detailed in What Can I Do to Help Hold abusers Accountable.
- Wordes, M. (2000). Creating a Structured Decision-Making Model for Police Intervention in Intimate Partner Violence, Washington D.C.: National Institute of Justice.
- Buzawa, E., Hotaling, G., Klein, A. & Byrnes, J. (1999). Op cit.
- Ventura, L. & Davis, G. (October 2004). Domestic Violence: Court Case Conviction and Recidivism in Toledo. Toledo, OH: University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center.
- Adams S. (December 1999). Serial batterers, Probation Research Bulletin, Office of the Commissioner of Probation, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
- Wilson & Klein (2006).
- Cited in Wilson & Klein (2006).
- Klein, A. (1996). Re-abuse in a population of court-restrained male batterers: Why restraining orders don't work." In E. Buzawa & C. Buzawa (Eds.) Do Arrest and Restraining Orders Work? Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 192-214
- Wilson & Klein (2006), p 5.
- Davis, R., Smith, B. & Nickles, L. (1998). The deterrent effect of prosecuting domestic violence misdemeanors. Crime and Delinquency, 44 (3), 434-443.
- Klein et al (2005).
- Wilson & Klein (2006), p 49.
- Hirschel, D., Buzawa, E., Pattavina, A., Faggiana, D. & Ruelan, M. (2007). Explaining the Prevalence, Context, and Consequences of Dual Arrest in Intimate Partner Cases, National Institute of Justice.
- Klein et al (2005).
- Buzawa et al (1999).
- Klein et al (2005).
- Gondolf, E. (2000). A 30-month follow-up of court referred abusers in four cities. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 44 (1), 111-1.
- Ibid. p 48.
- Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48-49.
- Smith, B.E., Davis, R., Nickles, L.B. & Davies, H.J. (2001). An Evaluation of Efforts to Implement No-drop Policies: Two Central Values in Conflict.
- Felson, R.B., Ackerman, J.M. & Gallagher, C. (2005). Police Intervention and the Repeat of Domestic Assault.
- Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48.
- Ibid., p 8.
- Ibid., p 49.
- Klein et al (2005).
- Labriola, M., Rempel, M., Finklestein, R., O’Sullivan, C.S., Frank, P.B. & McDowell, J., (2000). Court Responses to Batterer Program Noncompliance: A National Perspective.
- Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48.
- Klein (2009).Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges, National Institute of Justice.