Domestic Violence Cases Involving Children: Effects of an Evidence-Based Prosecution Approach

Article excerpt

This article reports findings from the evaluation of a city-county criminal prosecution unit for domestic violence involving children. Data from 446 cases prosecuted in the first 2 years of the Joint Prosecution Unit (JPU) were compared to a matched group of 446 domestic abuse cases prosecuted by both the city and county attorneys' offices in the 2 years prior to inception of the JPU. Results of the comparisons indicated that fewer cases were declined or dismissed by the new unit, and that cases were prosecuted at a significantly more stringent level. Multinomial logistic regression analysis indicated that child and weapon factors were associated with increased likelihood of a more serious (i.e., felony) plea for the new prosecution unit, relative to the comparison group. Results are presented in the context of addressing the difficulties inherent in the prosecution of domestic abuse and in light of the increasing awareness of the detrimental effects of domestic violence on children.

Keywords: domestic violence; children; evidence-based prosecution; evaluation

The last 2 decades have brought significant changes in the legal handling of domestic violence, from arrest to prosecution and beyond. For an arrest to have a deterrent effect, the arrest must be followed by both effective prosecution and court procedures (Hirschel, Hutchison. & Dean, 1992). Despite this, much of the research into legal/judicial changes in policy, statute, and practice in domestic violence cases has focused on mandatory arrest and newer court practices, while little attention has been paid to more recent prosecutorial approaches, specifically evidence-based prosecution (Ford, 2003; Murphy, Musser, & Maton, 1998). Increased knowledge of the detrimental impact on children of witnessing domestic violence has resulted in changes of policy in many systems, but there is little documentation of how prosecutors address cases involving children. In this article, we review the literature on evidence-based prosecution of domestic violence and report evaluation data from a specialized prosecution unit for domestic violence cases involving children. This article contributes to the small body of empirical literature on the utility of evidence-based prosecution. It is the first article of which we know to report empirical findings on the application of this strategy for domestic violence cases involving children.

Evidence-Based Prosecution of Domestic Violence

Historically, prosecutors' motivation to charge and prosecute domestic violence cases has been limited by victim ambivalence and perceived lack of evidence (Fagan, 1995), and prosecution rates in domestic violence cases have been low (Ford, 1983). In turn, police officers have been reluctant to arrest suspects or to spend time investigating or documenting a case, for fear that there would be little or no "payoff" in prosecution of the arrestee. Victims might have perceived the law enforcement and justice system as unwilling to protect them and their children, and hence participating in such a process did not seem worth the cost of angering the batterer (Ferraro & Boychuk, 1992). In addition, classification of domestic violence as a low-level offense by prosecutors might have discouraged victims by leading them to believe that the crime was trivialized, and that the risk of cooperating with prosecution might not have been worth the minimal consequences (Hart, 1993).

Children, particularly those under 6, are frequently present during domestic violence incidents (e.g., Edleson, 1999a; Gewirtz & Menakem, 2004), and their presence may be associated with other violence-related risk factors, such as maltreatment, physical injury, chronicity, and so forth (e.g., Hart, 1992). Despite this, there was little documented evidence that prosecutors paid particular attention to the presence or absence of children as a mitigating, exacerbating, or otherwise influential factor. …