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

Published June 2009

Chapter 6. Prosecution Responses

Section  18 — Do specialized prosecution units work?

There are a limited number of studies specifically devoted to specialized domestic violence prosecution programs. Because specific programs vary, including the resources expended, it is difficult to pinpoint what works and what does not. Also, in many instances, these programs coexist with specialized domestic violence courts and other programs that may affect outcomes independent of the prosecution programs. However, in general, the research suggests that these programs work well on a number of levels.

First, research indicates that victims generally report satisfaction with domestic violence prosecutions conducted by specialized prosecution teams. Increased satisfaction may translate into increased victim cooperation. For example, in Alexandria, Va., a study revealed that 90.2 percent of victims found prosecutors either very or somewhat helpful, a higher rating than that given to the police or a victim support service agency. The 90.2 percent satisfaction rate reported by Alexandria victims compares to only 67.3 percent for victims in Virginia Beach, a jurisdiction that did not have a specialized domestic violence response program by police, prosecutors or victim advocates. [172]

Similarly, in Cook County (Chicago), victims reported higher satisfaction with the specialized domestic violence prosecution unit than with the prosecutors who handled domestic violence outside the unit. The unit featured specially trained prosecutors and vertical prosecution, where one prosecutor handles the case from arraignment through final disposition. This unit also had its own victim advocates. The victims were also more likely to appear in court: 75 percent compared to 25 percent in domestic violence cases in jurisdictions with no specialized domestic violence unit. [107]

The latter finding was not unique. 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 in sites with specialized domestic violence courts that also contained specialized prosecution programs and increased victim advocacy. [103] However, the same study found equal satisfaction with prosecutors in both demonstration sites and comparison sites that had no specialized court domestic violence programs. [103]

Second, specialized prosecution programs have significantly increased prosecution and conviction rates. The specialized prosecution unit in Cook County (Chicago) obtained a conviction rate of 71 percent compared to 50 percent obtained by the rest of the office for domestic violence cases. [107] In Milwaukee, the specialized domestic violence prosecution unit increased felony convictions five times over, once the unit was established. [104] Implementation of a specialized domestic violence prosecution unit in Champaign County, Ill., increased prosecutions by 18 percent, and overall domestic violence case dismissals decreased by 54 percent. Convictions increased by 22 percent. [109]

However, other studies suggest that specialized prosecution units must be adequately staffed to make a difference. The specialized prosecution unit in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), N.C., obtained a much lower conviction rate (38 percent), akin to that obtained without specialized units. However, researchers noted that the unit was significantly understaffed, with only two prosecutors assigned to hundreds of cases annually. [68] Brooklyn's specialized felony prosecution program within the Borough's special felony domestic violence court increased convictions from 87 percent to 94 percent for felonies other than protection order violations and to 93 percent for violations. Although the rate was higher than before, the difference was not statistically significant. [164]

Third, specialized prosecution programs appear to be associated with more robust dispositions that also appear to be better monitored and enforced. A study of three domestic violence courts with specialized prosecutors in three different states found augmented probation conditions as compared to jurisdictions without domestic violence specialization. Augmented conditions included drug and alcohol abstinence and testing, batterer intervention programs that lasted longer and were more expensive, more no-contact protective orders, attendance at fatherhood programs or women's groups for female offenders, more mental health evaluations, mandatory employment and restrictions on weapons. [103]

Implications for Prosecutors

If adequately funded, specialized domestic violence prosecution units, especially if associated with specialized domestic violence law enforcement units and courts, should increase domestic violence prosecutions and convictions, victim cooperation and satisfaction and, if dispositions are geared to defendant risk of reabuse, more victim safety. (Research basis: Multiple studies in disparate jurisdictions.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009