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

Published June 2009

Chapter 6. Prosecution Responses

Section 1 — What is the current level of domestic violence prosecution across the country?

Although there remain wide disparities in the prosecution of domestic violence cases from one jurisdiction to another, routine prosecution of domestic violence arrests is no longer exceptional or rare. In fact, prosecutors who automatically dismiss or nolle prosse almost all domestic violence cases may be increasingly rare and exceptional.

A total of 120 studies from over 170 mostly urban jurisdictions in 44 states and the District of Columbia (and a few foreign countries) of intimate-partner prosecutions between 1973 and 2006 [71] found the average arrest prosecution rate was 63.8 percent, ranging from a low of 4.6 percent of 802 arrests in Milwaukee in 1988-1989 to 94 percent of 3,662 arrests in Cincinnati in 1993-1996. The rate of offense prosecution was lower, with an average of 27.4 percent, ranging from a low of 2.6 percent for more than 5,000 offenses in Detroit in 1983 to 72.5 percent for more than 5,000 offenses reported in Boulder County, Colo., in 2003-2005.

Several studies demonstrate that domestic violence prosecutions can be routine across entire states, notwithstanding demographic, prosecution and law enforcement variations across counties and localities. A study of 15,000 protective order violations across Massachusetts between 1992 and 1995 found that 60 percent were prosecuted in total. [10] A study of 4,351 felony domestic violence prosecutions in South Carolina between 1996 and 2000 found a 46 percent prosecution rate. [21] Similarly, a study of 238,000 misdemeanor domestic violence charges between 1997 and 2002 in North Carolina found a prosecution rate of 47 percent. [16]

Jurisdictions with specialized domestic violence prosecution programs generally boast higher rates. A study of San Diego's City Attorney's Office documented that prosecutors prosecuted 70 percent of cases brought by police. Similarly, specialized prosecutors in Omaha, Neb., prosecuted 88 percent of all police domestic violence arrests. In several of these sites, comparisons before and after implementation of the specialized prosecution program found marked increases in prosecutions. In Everett, Wash., dismissals dropped from 79 percent to 29 percent, and in Klamath Falls, Ore., they dropped from 47 percent to 14 percent. [196]

On the other hand, not all domestic violence cases are equally likely to be prosecuted. The research indicates that prosecutions of intimate-partner stalking [160] and intimate-partner sexual assault [161] are rare. The research also reflects very low arrest rates for these offenses.

Implications for Prosecutors

Prosecutors who fail to prosecute the majority of domestic violence arrests made by police should examine their practices, policies and priorities to determine why they are prosecuting fewer domestic violence arrests than their peers around the country. (Research basis: Multiple studies, including at least three statewide studies.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009