Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges
Published June 2009
Chapter 6. Prosecution Responses
Section 14 — Does prosecuting domestic violence offenders deter reabuse?
The research is fairly consistent. Simply prosecuting offenders without regard to the specific risk they pose, unlike arresting domestic violence defendants, does not deter further criminal abuse. [11, 39, 55, 68, 96] The minority of abusers arrested who are low risk are unlikely to reabuse in the short run, whether prosecuted or not. Alternatively, without the imposition of significant sanctions including incarceration, the majority of arrested abusers who are high risk will reabuse regardless of prosecution — many while the case against them is pending.
A study of a large number of arrests in three states (Connecticut, Idaho and Virginia) found that those who were prosecuted and convicted for domestic violence were more likely to be rearrested than offenders who were not convicted. However, in this study, those prosecuted and convicted were significantly more likely to be higher risk offenders as measured by prior criminal history. 
A number of studies have found that prosecution can reduce subsequent arrests and violence. [66, 91, 130, 211, 225, 226] The key to reducing reabuse may depend not on whether the case is prosecuted but on the dispositions imposed. For example, a Toledo, Ohio, misdemeanor court study found that conviction was significantly associated with reduced rearrests for domestic violence one year following court disposition, even when controlling for batterers' prior history of domestic violence arrests, age, gender, education, employment, and marital status. However, the details of the specific disposition mattered. The more intrusive sentences — including jail, work release, electronic monitoring and/or probation — significantly reduced rearrest for domestic violence as compared to the less intrusive sentences of fines or suspended sentences without probation. The difference was statistically significant: Rearrests were 23.3 percent for defendants with more intrusive dispositions and 66 percent for those with less intrusive dispositions. 
Another study of 683 defendants in Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio, who were arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence also confirmed that sentence severity was significantly associated with reduced recidivism, especially for unmarried defendants, although in this study the actual sentence length (number of days in jail) was not found to be significant.  Similar research looking at the cumulative effects of arrest followed by prosecution and court dispositions (including those receiving batterer treatment) has found modest reductions in reabuse to be associated with greater post-arrest criminal justice involvement. [163, 204] Research of almost 2,000 domestic violence defendants in Alexandria, Va., found that, over a period of three and one-half years, repeat offenders were associating with those who had a prior criminal history and were not sentenced to incarceration for the study arrest during that period. This led researchers to recommend jail sentences for domestic violence defendants with any prior criminal history. 
The Ohio felony study, however, found mixed results between jail sentences and prison sentences. Although jail sentences were significantly related to lower odds of subsequent misdemeanor or felony intimate-partner assaults after two years, prison sentences were not significantly related. Although the likelihood of new charges was 9 percent less for those jailed (compared to those sentenced to probation), the likelihood was only 2 percent lower for those imprisoned, compared to those placed on probation.  This may simply reflect that the sample size in the study was too small to produce a statistically significant effect.
Implications for Prosecutors
Prosecution deters domestic violence if it adequately addresses abuser risk by imposing appropriately intrusive sentences, including supervised probation and incarceration. (Research basis: Although studies conflict with each other on the subject of abuse prosecution, those studies that researched prosecutions, and the resulting dispositions that addressed defendant risk, suggest that domestic violence prosecution can significantly deter reabuse.)