Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges

Published June 2009

Chapter 6. Prosecution Responses

Section  7 — Can prosecutors increase victim cooperation?

Although victims most commonly reported fear of retaliation as a barrier to their participation in prosecution, a three-state study found that the fear was reduced at sites with specialized prosecution programs, increased victim advocacy and specialized domestic violence courts. [103] These specialized response programs generally include fast-track scheduling, reducing victim vulnerability pending trial, increased victim contact pending trial, and victim-friendly proceedings that remove, as much as possible, victim involvement to proceed with prosecution. These measures contrast with those used in some jurisdictions, in which studies indicate some prosecutors treat victims like civil claimants. In a large 45-county study of upstate New York domestic violence prosecutions, researchers found that half of the prosecutors required victims to sign complaints in order to file charges. (On the other hand, two-thirds required victims to sign affidavits to confirm their interest in having charges withdrawn.) [227]

There is more research on what not to do than on what works. Specific studies suggest that the more prosecution-related burdens are placed on victims, the less likely they are to cooperate. In Milwaukee, a study found the majority of cases were dismissed when victims were required to attend a charging conference within days of the arrest of their abusers. However, absolved of this responsibility, Milwaukee prosecution rates increased from 20 percent to 60 percent. [38] In a similar vein, a comparison of protective order violation prosecutions across Massachusetts found a 66 percent dismissal rate when prosecutors routinely provided and encouraged victims to sign waivers of prosecution forms (often in front of defendants), compared to a 33-percent dismissal rate in an adjacent county in which victims were not provided this alternative. [10]

Some prosecutors are better at maintaining contact with victims than others. The Ohio court study found that the majority of victims never received rudimentary information from prosecutors before trial, including court dates. In almost 90 percent of the court cases, prosecutors never spoke with the victim on the phone and, in more than half of the cases (52 percent), never met with them before the trial date. When they did meet, it typically was for no more than a few minutes. [11] The importance of prosecutor-victim contact is underscored by a Toronto study that found if the victim met with a victim/witness representative, victim cooperation increased by a factor of 3.3. [43] In the Ohio court study, the strongest predictor of a guilty verdict in domestic violence misdemeanor cases was how many times the prosecutors met with the victim before trial. [11]

A limited number of studies that looked at the role of court-based victim advocates suggest that they may help in this regard. The studies found that victims appreciated contact with victim advocates/liaisons and reported a high degree of satisfaction. In the Quincy study, 81 percent of the victims reported satisfaction with the time they spent with victim advocates, and three-quarters (77 percent) said they would talk to the advocate again if a similar incident recurred. [23] Chicago domestic violence victims who had contact with victim advocates reported more satisfaction with the proceedings than those who had no contact. However, the same study reported that advocates' contact with victims did not make the victims more likely to come to court. [107]

The seeds for victim contact may be planted before the case even reaches prosecutors. A Portland, Ore., police study found that the following police activities significantly correlated with increased prosecution: (1) police contacted victims, (2) victim accepted services, (3) police provided victims with prosecution information, (4) police helped set up victim appointments with prosecutors, and (5) police helped victims obtain restraining orders and served the orders. [130]

Implications for Prosecutors

Victim cooperation can be enhanced if prosecutors can address victim fear of their abusers as well as their fear around being involved in subsequent legal proceedings. Pretrial conditions or detention and/or speedy trial dates may address victim fear and minimize actions required of victims, and sensitivity to victim needs may address their fear of court proceedings. The quality of police contact with victims may also be important for subsequent successful prosecution. (Research basis: Multiple studies and victim interviews in multiple studies.)

Performance Measure: Over 80 percent of victims were contacted by a prosecutor advocate in the Quincy court arrest and prosecution study; 42 percent of the victims had 45 minutes or more with an advocate, and the remainder had less time with one. [23]

Date Created: June 5, 2009