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Inside Criminal Justice

Do Mandatory Domestic Violence Arrests Hurt Victims?

May 21, 2014 07:50:08 am

Photo by .v1ctor Casale, via Flickr

For some three decades in the United States, it's been standard practice in many areas for police officers to make arrests in most cases of alleged intimate partner violence, whether or not victims ask for them.

The basic theory is that in a typical case, an abusive man intimidates a woman into not pressing charges, and the abuse goes on if there is no legal action.

Mandatory arrest policies were fueled partly by pioneering research done in Minneapolis by criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman in the 1980s, which concluded that arrests were the most effective police response in domestic violence cases.

But new research by Sherman is calling mandatory arrest policies into question.

A study based in Milwaukee was the centerpiece of the annual Jerry Lee Symposium on Evidence-Based Crime Policy, which concluded yesterday in Washington, D.C. Lee, a Philadelphia radio station owner, has funded criminology research at the University of Pennsylvania and Cambridge University in England. Sherman is affiliated both with Cambridge and the University of Maryland.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, Sherman and Heather M. Harris, also of the University of Maryland, examined death rates from all causes among victims in Milwaukee misdemeanor domestic violence cases 23 years after the alleged abusers were randomly assigned two two groups. Some were arrested after the charges and others were merely issued warnings.

The key result was that victims were 64 percent more likely to have died of all causes if their partners were arrested and jailed than if they were warned and allowed to remain at home. The death rate was much higher among African-American victims than among whites.

"Partner arrests for domestic common assault apparently increased premature death for their victims, especially African-Americans," the study said.

Sherman has written that "we now have clear evidence that arrest of intimate partners for misdemeanor violence has doubled the death rate among all 529 African-American victims of domestic violence in the experiment."

He added that, "the most likely explanation for this difference is that it was caused by physiological processes that may have been generated by their seeing their partners arrested."

Victim advocates did not speak at the primarily academic conference this week, but when the study results were disclosed recently in Milwaukee, they criticized the study as flawed for using old data to question current policies.

"Thankfully for victims of domestic violence, we don't live in the 1980s anymore," said End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Twenty-five-year-old data cannot be used to conclude that domestic violence arrests are dangerous to victims."

At this week's conference, Sherman contended that "criminal penalties have enormous side effects. They do not always deter crime, and they may increase crime."

Sherman and other speakers did not call for ending arrests in domestic violence cases. Rather, they urged that police be given more discretion to avoid making arrests if it appeared that jailing a suspect would lead to more trouble down the line.

"We should get away from a one-size-fits-all policy," he said.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, whose department has worked with researchers Sherman and Harris, appeared at the conference and agreed that the study does not establish that police officers should "do nothing" about domestic violence, or that "we should go back to 1975," before arrests in intimate partner violence cases were routine.

Flynn and other speakers said that more research is needed to provide law enforcers with better guidance on the effectiveness of arrests versus other tactics, such as referring alleged abusers to social services. He noted that of 81 domestic violence homicides in Milwaukee in the last eight years, suspects in 61 of them had prior arrest records.

Flynn refrained from concluding that the arrests somehow provoked the killings and should not have been made.

Even though domestic violence has had much more attention from criminal justice leaders in recent decades, successful prevention and treatment methods are far from clear, this week's conferees agreed.

One example: There are as many as 2,500 "batterer intervention programs" around the nation. Shawna Andersen of the Massachusetts Parole Board reviewed all the research literature and concluded that there is no evidence that sending an abuser to such treatment is better at preventing future violence than no treatment at all.

A general conclusion was voiced by Laurie Robinson of George Mason University, former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, who said, "We should look from the victims' perspective at how these cases are handled."

Kristina Rose of the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime is a longtime federal official who recently took time out to work directly with domestic violence victims. Rose quoted some female victims as saying of their abusers, "I don't want him to go to jail, I just want the violence to stop." Rose said, "We need to zero in on what victims want."

Among ideas offered by panelists:

--Rose called for better training of police officers to help them determine better who is the primary aggressor in a domestic violence situation.

--Criminologist Heather Strang of Cambridge University suggested that an alternative to immediate arrests of alleged abusers might be issuing them citations to appear the next day before a specialist who had the power to impose appropriate limitations on their activities with their victims that were designed specifically for their cases.

Despite the cautionary notes of the new Milwaukee research about the possible negative impact of domestic violence arrests, former Redlands, Ca., Police Chief James Bueermann, now president of the Police Foundation, a co-sponsor of the conference, predicted that "mandatory arrests policies aren't going away any time soon."

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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