Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

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Understanding Domestic Abusers

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

These include:

They have histories of non-domestic criminal behavior

Various studies have found different numbers, but all of them are high:

They get arrested again and again115,116

Consistent results have been found across numerous studies.

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:

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.

Arrest Practices

When abusers are arrested, they may be:

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.

Sentencing Practices

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:

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

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.

Next: What Can I Do To Help Hold Abusers Accountable?

Back To Understanding Domestic Abusers homepage

  1. Wordes, M. (2000). Creating a Structured Decision-Making Model for Police Intervention in Intimate Partner Violence, Washington D.C.: National Institute of Justice.
  2. Buzawa, E., Hotaling, G., Klein, A. & Byrnes, J. (1999). Op cit.
  3. Ventura, L. & Davis, G. (October 2004). Domestic Violence: Court Case Conviction and Recidivism in Toledo. Toledo, OH: University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center.
  4. Adams S. (December 1999). Serial batterers, Probation Research Bulletin, Office of the Commissioner of Probation, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
  5. Wilson & Klein (2006).
  6. Cited in Wilson & Klein (2006).
  7. Ibid.
  8. 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
  9. Wilson & Klein (2006), p 5.
  10. Davis, R., Smith, B. & Nickles, L. (1998). The deterrent effect of prosecuting domestic violence misdemeanors. Crime and Delinquency, 44 (3), 434-443.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Klein et al (2005).
  13. Wilson & Klein (2006), p 49.
  14. 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.
  15. Klein et al (2005).
  16. Buzawa et al (1999).
  17. Klein et al (2005).
  18. 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.
  19. Ibid. p 48.
  20. Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48-49.
  21. 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.
  22. Felson, R.B., Ackerman, J.M. & Gallagher, C. (2005). Police Intervention and the Repeat of Domestic Assault.
  23. Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48.
  24. Ibid., p 8.
  25. Ibid., p 49.
  26. Klein et al (2005).
  27. 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.
  28. Wilson & Klein (2006), p 48.
  29. Klein (2009).Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges, National Institute of Justice.