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

Published June 2009

Chapter 6. Prosecution Responses

Section  2 — Can most domestic violence arrest cases be successfully prosecuted in court?

Not all cases filed by prosecutors go to trial. As with most offenses, most domestic violence prosecutions are disposed of as a result of plea and sentencing negotiations. Of those that go to trial, not all prosecutions result in convictions. However, studies indicate that, in general, domestic violence prosecutions that go to trial routinely result in court convictions. "Not guilty" findings are rare. Studies document findings that range from a high of only 5.0 percent in Ohio [11], to 2.7 percent in Massachusetts [23], to a low of 1.6 percent in North Carolina. [68] A study of felony domestic violence prosecutions in Brooklyn, N.Y., found a similarly low "not guilty" rate of only 2 percent. [164]

For most domestic violence cases that do not go to trial, an analysis of 85 domestic violence prosecution studies found an overall conviction rate of 35 percent, ranging from a low of 8.1 percent of 37 cases prosecuted in Milwaukee between 1988 and 1989 to a high of 90.1 percent of 229 cases in Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecuted in 1997. If one very large study of 123,507 Maryland prosecutions from 1993 to 2003 is removed, the average conviction rate increases to almost half, 47.7 percent. [71] In three statewide prosecution studies of tens of thousands of domestic violence cases, similar conviction rates ranged from one-third in North Carolina to more than one-half in South Carolina. [16, 21]

Jurisdictions with specialized domestic violence prosecution programs boast higher rates: 96 percent in San Diego, 85 percent in Omaha, Neb., 78 percent in Klamath Falls, Ore., and 55 percent in Everett, Wash. The latter rate was the lowest because prosecutors maintained a diversion program that siphoned off 22 percent of the cases prosecuted. [196]

As important, multiple studies also find that convictions can be consistently obtained that include the most intrusive disposition, sentences of incarceration. For example, in the three statewide domestic violence prosecution studies, 12.6 percent of the Massachusetts [10] and 20 percent of the North Carolina [16] misdemeanant domestic violence defendants prosecuted were sentenced to incarceration. In South Carolina, almost half (45 percent) of felony domestic violence defendants prosecuted were sentenced to prison. [21] In Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court, 80 to 85 percent of all convicted offenders were sentenced to incarceration consistently during the study period of 1996 through 2000. [164] Although the latter single court incarceration rate may have been the result of a singular effort on the part of prosecutors and others, the statewide rates include multiple prosecutors across each state.

Many other disparate court studies document incarceration rates ranging from 76 percent to 21 percent: 76 percent in Klamath Falls, Ore. [196]; 70 percent in Cincinnati, Ohio, with the largest number incarcerated between 150 and 180 days [11]; 56 percent in Everett, Wash. [196]; 52 percent in Omaha, Neb. [196]; 39 percent in the Bronx, N.Y. [185]; 35 percent in Brooklyn, N.Y. [31]; 30 percent in Milwaukee [39]; 23 percent in Chicago (including time jailed pending prosecution) [107]; 22.5 percent in Quincy, Mass. [23]; and 21 percent in San Diego, Calif. [196] A study of intimate-partner arrests across three states — Connecticut, Idaho and Virginia — found similarly intrusive dispositions, with three-quarters of those convicted, incarcerated, sentenced to probation or fined. [117]

Implications for Prosecutors

The research suggests that domestic violence cases can be successfully prosecuted at trial, and a large proportion of cases (and most cases in some jurisdictions) can be disposed of before trial, even without removing incarceration as an outcome. (Research basis: Multiple studies in disparate jurisdictions for both felony and misdemeanor domestic violence prosecutions.)

Performance Measure: Norfolk County, Mass., prosecutors brought 505 charges arising out of 342 domestic violence incidents studied, compared to 531 charges initially filed by arresting police departments, a dropoff of only 5 percent. Prosecutors enhanced charges of felony assault from 14.1 percent filed by police to 23.8 percent. Prosecutors proceeded to nolle prosequi in 18.5 percent of the cases and asked that an additional 10 percent be dismissed in court. With the exception of 2.5 percent of arrests that resulted in not-guilty findings, the remaining defendants were either found guilty after trial or admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty (although judges initially allowed 25 percent of the cases to be conditionally continued without imposition of a guilty finding). (Research basis: The studies followed 342 arrests that occurred within Eastern Norfolk County and followed them as long as 10 years. [23, 138])

Date Created: June 5, 2009