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Domestic Violence - Prosecution And Sentencing Policies

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Prosecutors routinely fail to initiate cases and follow through with prosecution. Victim noncooperation is often cited as the major reason for dismissing a domestic violence case. Thus, once police began to arrest alleged batterers, advocates began to focus reform efforts on prosecution practices. As a result, prosecutors are undertaking new initiatives. Many have established specialized domestic violence units. A few units specialize in same-sex battering, while others target teenagers in dating relationships, where experimentation with violence often begins. Vertical prosecution, in which one prosecutor is assigned to handle the case from arraignment to completion, thus providing the victim with ongoing support, is becoming common. Increasingly, jurisdictions are employing social workers to counsel victims and their families. Some courts expedite, or rocket docket, domestic violence cases. Others divert first-time offenders into batterer treatment prior to trial.

Most controversial, many jurisdictions are implementing no-drop policies. Under such policies, prosecutors cannot routinely dismiss charges at the victim's request, but are required to pursue a case if enough evidence exists to substantiate the charge. Moreover, the prosecutor usually signs the charge, relieving the victim of responsibility. At least four states have adopted legislation encouraging the use of no-drop policies, and VAWA has authorized grants to local law enforcement agencies that adopt aggressive prosecution policies.

Pro-prosecution policies are often characterized as either hard or soft no-drop policies. Under hard policies, cases proceed regardless of the victim's wishes when there is enough evidence to go forward. This can include subpoenaing the victim to testify and requesting that the judge issue an order of contempt if the victim refuses to cooperate. Most states recognize an exemption to marital privilege laws in cases in which one spouse is charged with a crime against the other and, thus, the vast majority of victims can be compelled to testify as a witness for the state and incarcerated for refusing to do so. Some jurisdictions go forward without the victim's testimony, just as if it were a homicide case, by introducing other evidence, such as 911 tapes, photographs, medical records, and testimonies of police officers and expert witnesses.

Under soft policies, victims are provided with support services and encouraged to proceed, but are never mandated to participate. The state will not proceed if the victim insists that the case be dropped.

Those supportive of aggressive prosecution argue that no-drop policies take the burden off the victim by removing her as the "plaintiff." They contend that the batterer has less incentive to try to harm or intimidate his victim once he realizes that she no longer controls the process. Furthermore, aggressive prosecution sends a strong message that domestic violence is a crime against the state as well as the individual. However, many advocates for battered women argue that the use of hard policies has the unintended effect of punishing or revictimizing the victim for the actions of the abuser. It also fails to take into account the effect that prosecution will have on family income or children. The state should neither force the victim into a process over which she has no control, nor undermine her autonomy or decision-making.

Do aggressive prosecution policies work? It is difficult to measure the difference between policies as written and policies as practiced. While early data indicate that aggressive policies can reduce domestic homicides, lower recidivism rates, and change attitudes within the criminal justice system, more research is needed to verify these findings (Hanna, 1996).

Despite these reforms, most domestic violence cases still end in arrest. Of those cases that are prosecuted, many are charged or plead down to misdemeanors even though the conduct constituted a felony. When prosecutors do go forward, the final disposition is most often a period of probation. A growing number of defendants must also complete a batterer's treatment program as a condition of probation. Only a small percentage of domestic violence offenders are sentenced to incarceration (Hanna, 1998).

How do domestic violence cases compare to nondomestic violence cases? As of 1999, no empirical evidence supported the assertion that the criminal justice system treats domestic violence offenses less seriously than other violent crimes. One study in the mid-1980s found that offenders closely related by blood or sexual ties to their victims were usually given probation or had their cases dismissed, but so too were offenders unrelated to their victims (Ferraro and Boychuck). According to a 1998 study of all inmates incarcerated in state prisons, the median sentence for assault was four years longer if the victim was the offender's spouse rather than a stranger (Greenfeld). Given the changes in arrest and prosecution policies, as well as increased public pressure on law enforcement to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, it is likely that domestic cases are being treated more seriously than nondomestic cases.

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