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

Published June 2009

Chapter 7. Judicial Responses

Section 13 — Do specialized domestic violence courts work?

Although relatively new, some research shows that specialized domestic violence courts are associated with decreased reoffending and reabuse. The reduction may be due to reforms of court processes or a corresponding specialization of domestic violence prosecution and/or probation supervision, or all three. A study of Milwaukee's federally funded domestic violence court found that the number of arrests were halved for domestic violence defendants sentenced to probation, compared to those sentenced to probation before court reform. The rearrest rate dropped from 8 percent to 4.2 percent. The average number of new arrests also dropped significantly. Researchers posited that one of the prime explanations for the drop was a corresponding rise in the use of incarceration as a sentence. As a result of tight judicial monitoring and enforcement of release conditions, the post-reform probationers spent 13,902 days confined, compared to the 1,059 days probationers spent jailed in the days before court reform. In other words, those sentenced by the special domestic violence court had less time on the streets to reabuse and reoffend. [104]

Studies also found reduced reabuse rates at one other federally funded domestic violence court, in Dorchester, Mass., over a period of 11 months, but not in a third model domestic violence court examined in Michigan. In all three sites, researchers found that the courts were most effective with 18- to 29-year-old defendants, and offenders with seven or more prior arrests whose victims had moderate to high support, did not have children with their abusers, and whose relationship with them was less than three years. Although reabuse declined in two of the courts, overall new arrests for any offense were not statistically different, although they were in the expected direction: 22 percent for the domestic violence courts, and 28 percent for the nondomestic violence courts. [103]

Three other studies of specialized domestic violence courts have found small but significant reductions in reoffending [79, 91], including a study of the San Diego superior court, in which rearrests dropped from 21 to 14 percent in one year. [180] An evaluation of Cook County's four domestic violence courts, on the other hand, found no differences in rearrest rates over six months. [107]

Apart from reduced reabuse rates, domestic violence courts are associated with increased convictions and decreased dismissals. [40, 104, 115, 164] In Cook County, the four misdemeanor domestic violence courts significantly increased the likelihood of victims appearing in court when compared with their appearance in general courts (73 vs. 40 percent). This, in turn, correlated with increased conviction rates of 73 percent in domestic violence courts compared to 22.9 percent in general courts. [107]

Although domestic violence victims generally rate their court experiences highly, they rate domestic violence courts even more highly. [52, 91, 124] One study found that if victims were aware that there was a domestic violence court, three-quarters of the victims were more likely to report future violence. [196] One of the reasons that victims may prefer domestic violence courts may be the court contacts providing increased victim services and referrals to victim advocates, documented in several of the studies. [103, 115, 164] This may be why the District of Columbia domestic violence court was able to report an increased rate of civil protective order retention from 40 to 55 percent. [200] Domestic violence courts are also associated with more efficient processing of cases. The study of Manhattan's domestic violence misdemeanor court experienced faster case processing as well as improved identification of domestic violence cases. [179]

The research also finds that domestic violence courts increase offender compliance by imposing court-ordered conditions and by increasing the penalties for noncompliance. [104, 164] The study of Manhattan's domestic violence misdemeanor court documented enhanced monitoring of offenders after their convictions. [179] Defendants in Milwaukee were required to attend post-disposition court reviews 60 to 90 days after disposition. In 2002, the court conducted 1,347 such reviews, and probation revocations increased dramatically. [104]

Implications for Judges

Specialized domestic violence courts are associated with beneficial reforms in several areas, including victim safety and satisfaction, offender accountability, and more efficient case-flow processing. (Research basis: The research is based mainly on disparate process evaluations of specialized domestic violence courts. The research does not suggest, however, that judges presiding over general trial courts cannot adopt similar practices and thereby achieve the same results in each case.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009