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

Published June 2009

Chapter 3. Offender Characteristics

Section 13 — Is prior arrest history an important risk factor

If the abuser has just one prior arrest on his criminal record for any crime (not just domestic violence), he is more likely to reabuse than if he has no prior arrest. [23, 39, 85, 172, 185] A multistate study of more than 3,000 police arrests found that offenders with a prior arrest record for any offense were more than seven times more likely to be rearrested than those without prior records. [117]

The length of prior record is predictive of reabuse as well as general recidivism. [163] In looking at all restrained male abusers over two years, Massachusetts research documented that if the restrained abuser had just one prior arrest for any offense on his criminal record, his reabuse rate of the same victim rose from 15 to 25 percent; if he had five to six prior arrests, it rose to 50 percent. [134] In the Rhode Island abuser probation study, abusers with one prior arrest for any crime were almost twice as likely to reabuse within one year, compared to those with no prior arrest (40 percent vs. 22.6 percent). If abusers had more than one prior arrest, reabuse increased to 73.3 percent. [141] Of course, prior civil or criminal records specifically for abuse also increase the likelihood for reabuse. [23, 68, 216, 228]

Related to the correlation between prior arrest history and reabuse, research also finds similar increased risk for reabuse if suspects are on warrants. In the Berkeley study, researchers documented that having a pending warrant at the time of a domestic violence incident for a prior nondomestic violence offense was a better predictor of reabuse than a prior domestic violence record alone. [228] Similarly, in the one study that addressed this issue, suspects who were gone when police arrived were twice as likely to reabuse as those found on the scene by police. [23]

Similarly, one large statewide study found that if the suspect before the court for domestic violence was already on probation for anything else, or if another domestic violence case was also pending at the time of a subsequent arrest for domestic violence, that defendant was more likely to be arrested again for domestic violence within one year. [141]

Implications for Law Enforcement

The absence of a prior domestic violence arrest is not as powerful a predictor of no reabuse as the absence of a prior arrest for anything. On the other hand, a prior arrest record for any crime may be as accurate a predictor for subsequent domestic violence as a prior record for domestic violence. Law enforcement officers should attempt to track down the suspect who leaves the scene and aggressively serve warrants to protect victims from higher risk abusers. (Research basis: Multiple studies in disparate jurisdictions find that both prior criminal history and prior domestic violence correlate with reabuse, and vice versa, although the predictive power of prior domestic violence history may be less revealing if domestic violence arrest rates are low in that specific jurisdiction. Although only the limited studies speak to reabuse in correlation with abuser flight, they are consistent with more plentiful arrest studies that find support for the efficacy of arresting abuse suspects.)

Implications for Prosecutors and Judges

The absence of a prior domestic violence arrest is not as powerful a predictor of no reabuse as the absence of a prior arrest for anything. On the other hand, a prior arrest record for any crime is as accurate a predictor of subsequent domestic violence as a prior record for domestic violence. Therefore, in making charging decisions and sentencing recommendations, prosecutors should understand that if an abuser has a prior record for any crime, the prosecutor should assume him to be a high-risk domestic violence offender, not a low-risk "first" offender. Prosecutors should carefully review defendants' prior arrest records for warrant status and bail status at the time of the domestic violence arrest to accurately gauge defendant risk. Judges should understand that if an abuser has a prior record for any crime, he is a high-risk domestic violence offender, not a low-risk "first" offender. Judges should demand access to prior criminal and abuse histories before fashioning civil orders, making pretrial release decisions, or sentencing abusers. (Research basis: Multiple studies in disparate jurisdictions find both prior criminal history and prior domestic violence correlate with reabuse, and vice versa, although the predictive power of prior domestic violence history may be less revealing if domestic violence arrest rates are low in that specific jurisdiction.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009