The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits


The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits



During the past 30 years, the criminalization of domestic violence has developed along three parallel but generally separate tracks: criminal punishment and deterrence of batterers, batterer treatment, and restraining orders designed to protect victims through the threat of civil or criminal legal sanctions. Each of these policy tracks has been informed, advanced, and supported by advocacy groups for battered women. Victim advocacy groups have worked vigorously for legislative and policy change, monitored and corrected the implementation of law and policy, and intensively supported expanded resources for victim services. Several jurisdictions have attempted to integrate these policies in systemwide approaches within the justice system.

Thus far, however, research and evaluation on arrest and prosecution, civil or criminal protection orders, batterer treatment, and community interventions have generated weak or inconsistent evidence of deterrent effects on either repeat victimization or repeat offending. For every study that shows promising results, one or more show either no effect or even negative results that increase the risks to victims.

Several factors have influenced the current state of policy and practice. Domestic violence and partner assault are complex behaviors. The range of sanctions for offenders has been limited, their deterrent effects mitigated by social and contextual factors, and their implementation constrained by practical operational contingencies. The social organization of courts and local legal cultures tend to devalue domestic violence cases. Perhaps most important, theories of violence have not been integrated with theories of domestic violence, and research and evaluation designs thus far have been weak.

A program of research and development is recommended to advance the current state of knowledge on the effects of legal sanctions for partner violence. Theory is essential to this effort. Testable ideas should be identified from theoretical advances, formative evaluations of innovative practices, and qualitative studies of battering careers. A stable and sufficient resource stream will be required to support developmental, evaluation, and research efforts.

Publication Date



United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice


Washington, DC


Criminal Law | Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence | Family Law | Law | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology

The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits

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