Court Responses to Batterer Program Noncompliance: A National Survey

Article excerpt

Over the past 25 years, the criminal justice system has sought to transform its historically inadequate response to domestic violence. The resulting pro-arrest and prosecution policies precipitated a massive influx of domestic violence cases into criminal courts nationwide. Increasingly, courts have turned to batterer programs as the preferred sentence in these cases, especially when the legal issues precluded a jail sentence.

For many years, the most widely understood purpose of court orders to batterer programs was to induce participants to stop their abusive behavior. Recently, however, the proposition that these programs can prevent further violence has emerged as a matter of contention. Although more than 65 batterer program studies have been completed since the 1980s, only five have employed experimental designs, providing the most robust test of effectiveness through random assignment to a batterer program or a control condition. The results of these experiments suggest that batterer programs may not be effective in reducing re-abuse.

Only the first experimental test found a clear positive effect on rates of re-abuse.1 Of the four more recent experiments, three showed no beneficial effect of a court order to a batterer program- and one showed a small suppressive effect on re-abuse only while the offenders were actively enrolled in the program/ A meta-analytic review of the experiments as well as several quasi-experiments with matched control groups found, on average, that batterer programs do not reduce re-offending, especially when measured by victim report, or at best show only marginal advantages over alternative sanctions such as probation, community service, or court monitoring/ Although even the strongest of the experimental studies have serious design limitations6 the preponderance of the strongest available evidence is not encouraging.

Given the questionable capacity of batterer programs to reduce reoffending, another potential function, promoted for years by some advocates and gaining broader attention in the wake of the aforementioned research, is accountability. This function is consistent with the original description of batterer programs in the late 1970s as one component of a broader criminal justice response. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, creators of the popular "Duluth Model" for batterer programs, describe the model as a "coordinated community response" guided by the aim of "changing the climate of tolerance for [domestic] violence."6

Yet, although "accountability" is linked rhetorically with batterer programs and the court response to domestic violence, the term has rarely been defined nor have the implications for court policies and practice been analyzed. In the study reported here, the underlying assumption was that to hold domestic violence offenders accountable, criminal courts must not merely order them to batterer programs but must enforce those orders by imposing meaningful consequences for noncompliance. When courts consistently impose penalties in response to noncompliance, up to and including jail, they send a clear message to the offender and to the greater community that the criminal justice system takes the offense (and its own orders) seriously. Our study investigated the extent to which criminal courts currently implement this principle of accountability in their everyday practice.

Questions and methodology

Our primary research question was simple: To what extent do criminal courts across the country impose further penalties on domestic violence offenders who fail to comply with a court order to a batterer program? A corollary question was: What goals do courts, batterer programs, and battered women's agencies ascribe to court orders to batterer programs? Additional questions were: When and how do courts order offenders to these programs and what other types of programs do courts order for domestic violence offenders? …