Domestic Violence

Angela R Gover. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Domestic violence occurs when a current or former intimate partner exerts dominance and control in a relationship through physical, sexual, or psychological-emotional abuse, resulting in physical or emotional trauma to the victim. Other forms of domestic violence include stalking and dating violence. Other terms used for domestic violence include intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, family violence, spousal abuse, dating violence, wife abuse, and battering.

Domestic violence exists within all cultures, ethnicities, faiths, age groups, education levels, income levels, and sexual orientations. Domestic violence can occur between many different kinds of couples: married or unmarried couples, couples who live in rural areas and urban areas, those that cohabitate or live separately, couples that had been formerly married or had dated, and between heterosexual or same-sex couples. Furthermore, sexual intimacy is not required to be present in a relationship in order for domestic violence to occur.

While the statutory term for domestic violence in most states usually includes other family members besides intimate partners, such as children, parents, siblings, sometimes roommates, and so forth, practitioners typically apply the term domestic violence to a coercive, systemic pattern of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse between intimate partners. Victims of domestic violence can be women or men; however, the overwhelming majority of domestic violence involves women as victims and men as perpetrators. For this reason, many organizations concerned with domestic violence focus their attention and services specifically on violence against women and their children.

The following section of this chapter discusses the types and prevalence of domestic violence. It also discusses domestic violence warning signs, stalking, dating violence, and domestic violence in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the judicial response to domestic violence such as domestic violence and family courts.


The domestic violence movement, also referred to as the battered women’s movement, has a long history, although it picked up steam with the advent of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, Erin Pizzey opened the first battered women’s shelter in Chiswick, England. The first shelters in the United States opened their doors in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Pasadena, California; and Phoenix, Arizona, in 1972. Soon thereafter, a shelter opened in Boston, Massachusetts, and Casa Myrna Vasquez, also in Boston, opened its doors as the first shelter providing services primarily for Latinas. The first support group for battered lesbians began in Seattle in 1985. Awareness and services have increased exponentially over the past three decades, and as of September 2007, a total of 1,949 domestic violence programs were operational across the United States (National Center for Victims of Crime, 2008).

Types of Abuse

The underlying commonality behind all types of abusive behaviors associated with domestic violence is the intent to gain power and control over one’s partner or ex-partner through patterns of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. As previously mentioned, physical, sexual, and psychological violence, stalking, and dating violence are different types of abuse experienced by victims of domestic violence on a daily basis. Each type of abuse is discussed below.

Physical Violence

Physical violence involves the use of force, possibly resulting in physical harm, disability, or death. Examples of physical abuse include hitting, scratching, shoving, grabbing, biting, throwing, choking, shaking, kicking, burning, physical restraint, use of a weapon, or otherwise causing intentional physical injury to the victim.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence occurs when one forces or compels a person to engage in a sexual act or experiences sexual contact against his or her will. If a participant cannot communicate an understanding of and willingness to engage in a sexual act for any reason, including but not limited to disability, illness, and alcohol or drug intoxication, and the sex act is nonetheless attempted or completed by a perpetrator, an act of sexual violence transpires. In addition, sexual violence sometimes occurs within physically or emotionally abusive relationships where the victim agrees to sexual activity solely as a means to avoid additional abuse or intimidation. Examples of sexual violence include rape (including marital and date rape), attempted rape, inappropriate touching, unwanted voyeurism or exhibitionism, sexual harassment, or any other type of sexual activity to which one does not willingly agree.

Psychological Violence

Psychological violence is also commonly called emotional abuse and refers to behaviors of intimidation, control, or coercion resulting in emotional trauma. While a relationship does not need to include physical or sexual violence to be abusive, any prior acts or threats of physical or sexual violence do constitute psychological violence. Additional examples of psychological violence include stalking; limiting or controlling the victim’s activities or behaviors; isolating the victim from contact with friends or family; limiting or denying the victim’s access to basic or financial resources; destroying the victim’s personal property; abusive behavior toward a victim’s loved ones; verbal threats; humiliation; put-downs; and any other behaviors intended to cause emotional pain, embarrassment, diminishment, or powerlessness.

A relationship does not have to include all of the above behaviors in order to be considered abusive; a partner who attempts to wield dominance and control within a relationship through any threat or act of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse is committing an act of domestic violence. It is also important to note that while a few of the above behaviors are not necessarily prosecutable in criminal court, they nevertheless constitute abuse.


As defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC, 2008), stalking is “a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention, harassment, and contact.” Today, stalking is considered to be an example of abusive behavior within the framework of domestic violence because the dangers that victims face frequently continue even after they leave an abusive relationship. Research has indicated that many victims of domestic violence have experienced stalking behavior from a current or former intimate partner. Examples of stalking behaviors include following the victim, sending unwanted gifts and notes, repeated harassment such as phone calls or showing up at the victim’s place of work, and other behaviors that a stalker uses to inappropriately invade the victim’s life. These incursions may increase in frequency as a stalker tries to exert more control over a victim, sometimes in response to the loss of control he or she experienced at the end of the relationship. When stalking behaviors escalate, they may lead to outright threats or incidents of physical violence.

Nationally, all 50 of the United States have implemented anti-stalking laws and protective orders for victims. However, not all states treat the first offense of stalking as a felony; in most states, first-time offenders are charged with a misdemeanor. In some cases, a felony conviction occurs only after a third offense.

Dating Violence

Dating violence is a form of domestic violence that has been receiving much attention in recent years from the research and practice community (those who work with abuse victims). However, there are a few notable differences between dating violence within adolescent and young adult couples (high school and college age) and domestic violence within older couples who perhaps live together, have children in common, or are married. Many young people who are involved in dating relationships experience unhealthy and abusive behaviors, but the problem is often overlooked because the relationship is less likely to be viewed as long-term or dependent in nature. Young people in relationships today do not necessarily view their relationships as long-term, as relationships were once assumed to be. In addition, both men and women view relationships as being more casual in general today, compared to previous generations. Finally, changing women’s roles in society may have had an impact on how female adolescents conduct themselves in relationships today.

Statistics show that dating violence is a serious problem among youth. Research suggests that college students are highly vulnerable to dating violence because so many are involved in romantic relationships during these formative years. Dating violence research has produced interesting findings regarding the relationship between gender and victimization. Early research on adolescent dating violence suggested that females were more likely than males to be victimized by their dating partners (Roscoe & Kelsey, 1986). Some studies have reported similar dating violence victimization rates for males and females (Arriaga & Foshee, 2004). According to a recent study of approximately 2,500 college students attending two large southeastern U.S. universities, 24% of males perpetrated physical violence against a partner, 32% of females perpetrated physical violence against a partner, 57% of females perpetrated psychological abuse against a partner, and 50% of male respondents perpetrated psychological abuse against a partner (Gover, Kaukinen, & Fox, 2008). This is consistent with a Fact Sheet distributed by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV, 2008), which reports that 1 in 5 college students say they have experienced violence within a current dating relationship, about a third have experienced dating violence within a previous relationship, and over half of acquaintance rapes on college campuses occur within the context of a dating relationship. Overall, the relationship between gender and dating violence is one that needs to continue to be explored because there are many questions that current research is unable to answer. Specifically, while there are many studies that discuss the prevalence of different forms of dating violence, these studies very rarely also inquire as to the context in which this violence occurs. This makes it hard to understand the quantitative data, and it makes it difficult to move forward on the best way to educate the community and respond to the issue given the fact that nondating violence research indicates that women are significantly more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence compared to men.

In many states, the law simply overlooks victims of dating violence when it comes to protection. As reported by NCADV (2008), in many states the criminal and civil domestic violence laws only apply to victims who are married to, cohabitate with, or have a child in common with the perpetrator. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow victims of dating violence to apply for orders of protection against a perpetrator. Eleven states do not recognize dating violence in their statutes.

Prevalence of Domestic Violence

The National Violence Against Women Survey indicates that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). In addition, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2005, 2006) reports that females represent an overwhelming majority of family violence victims, spousal abuse victims, and dating violence victims, with women at the greatest risk for intimate partner violence between the ages of 20 and 24.

A few studies have reported that males are victims of domestic violence in similar numbers to women (Straus, 1999); however, it is often argued that domestic violence perpetrated by women toward male victims rarely result in injuries as serious as those experienced by female victims of male perpetrators (Stets & Straus, 1990). Many victim advocates suspect that the majority of violence committed by women in abusive relationships takes place for purposes of self-defense against an abusive male partner.

In September 2007, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV, 2007) conducted a 24-hour point-in-time survey known as the National Census of Domestic Violence Services. With participation by 69% of domestic violence programs across the United States, results indicated that 52,203 victims of domestic violence were served within one 24-hour period. Of those served, about half sought shelter. Also during that time, 20,582 domestic violence hotline calls were answered across the country. The report also found that 7,707 requests for services were unmet due to lack of space or resources. Clearly, the pervasiveness of domestic violence across the United States is overwhelming, with a tremendous need for services for victims and their children on a daily basis.

Explaining Domestic Violence

Scholars have had a difficult time developing explanations for the occurrence of domestic violence. Yet, it is widely understood that perpetrators turn to abusive behaviors as a means to gain power and control over their partner. Behaviors of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse within a relationship typically increase in their severity over time, as the perpetrator seeks to dominate the victim more fully. But abusers may differ from one another when it comes to the reasons why they seek to increase their power through abuse.

Cycle of Violence

The majority of relationships characterized by domestic violence experience what is referred to as the cycle of violence, which consists of three stages: (1) the tension-building stage, (2) the explosive stage, and (3) the honeymoon stage. The cycle is not the same for all victims in terms of duration, but there is evidence that the violence escalates as the cycle increases in frequency. Victims become so accustomed to the cycle that based on the behavior of their partner, they can usually anticipate when their batterer will become abusive. The first stage, the tension-building stage, is a time that can be characterized by extremely high stress. The batterer may vent this increased tension by taking it out on objects or by acting aggressively in other ways, and it is common for the batterer to act overly jealous of his partner and attempt to isolate the partner from family and friends more than normal. While this is happening, many victims feel like they are walking on eggshells and they try to do anything they can to stop their batterer from becoming physically abusive.

The tension-building stage is followed by the explosive stage. The term for this stage is appropriate because this is the point in the cycle when the batterer releases his accumulation of stress by perpetrating violence against his partner in an act of rage. This may consist of either physical or sexual violence. During this stage, the batterer believes that the victim has caused him to be violent and that she must be put in her place, which is the batterer’s effort to control the situation. Law enforcement may or may not become involved at this stage, depending on whether the victim or a third party calls the police. If law enforcement does become involved during this stage, many batterers who remain at the scene often appear very calm and collected to the officer, since their stress was released through their perpetration of violence. On the other hand, victims often appear confused, hysterical, terrified, shocked, angry, afraid, and degraded. Batterers often use the victim’s demeanor to manipulate the situation by lying about what had transpired and denying that they perpetrated violence.

The final stage is referred to as the honeymoon stage. This stage is composed of acts on the part of the batterer to convince the victim to stay in the relationship, including promises to the victim that things will change. The batterer will typically ask for forgiveness and shower the victim with various presents as an expression of love and commitment to the relationship. During this stage, batterers also may seek counseling or go to church to show the victim that they are committed to changing their behavior. Unfortunately, victims who have been through the cycle before want to believe the promises that are being made, but instead feel depressed, helpless, hopeless, and trapped. While the batterer may feel somewhat in control again, he is still fearful that the victim may leave or obtain the involvement of the criminal justice system. Although apologies are made, batterers tend to minimize the abuse they inflicted on the victim.

In sum, the honeymoon stage eventually cycles back to the tension-building phase, since the cycle of violence is a continual repetitious pattern. Many women find it difficult to break out of the cycle of violence because of the new hope that comes out of the honeymoon stage, which is a reminder that their partner has the capability of also being a good person and isn’t always a bad person.


One explanation behind domestic abuse is that the perpetrator suffers from certain mental disorders that lead him to seek psychological gratification through dysfunctional relationships. Detractors of this theory point out that most domestic abusers manage to function normally in other relationships, not necessarily behaving aggressively toward others in their daily life. While some abusers probably do suffer from mental illness or exhibit some signs of personality disorders, it is difficult to claim psychopathology as the main cause of domestic violence.

Perceived Gender Roles

A more widely accepted theory from the feminist school of thought, gender role theory is a perspective that sees institutionalized patriarchy as an explanation for domestic violence. Abusers look to society’s heterosexual behavior norms as reinforcing male power and control, and reflect them in their intimate relationships. As such, an abuser who expects his partner to fill a traditionally subservient feminine gender role may resort to power and control behaviors to assert his power in the relationship. While this explanation rings true for many couples in abusive relationships, it fails to explain the occurrence of domestic violence within lesbian and gay relationships. There are specific reasons for domestic violence between same-sex couples, which will be discussed later in this chapter. However, one may argue that gender role theory can apply to homosexual relationships as well, in that the abuser may be trying to achieve a perceived societal gender norm within the relationship.

It is difficult to pinpoint one distinct explanation for the epidemic of domestic violence; every relationship is unique, and abusers exhibit violent behaviors for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it is most likely a combination of social, psychological, cultural, and individual factors that lead abusers to control their victims through domestic violence.

Domestic Violence and the GLBT Community

While the majority of research on domestic violence refers to heterosexual couples, studies focusing on intimate partner abuse within gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) relationships show that it happens at the same rates (Renzetti, 1992). Since their inception, domestic violence shelters have become more inclusive in welcoming and assisting gay women. Nonetheless, as stated by the New York Anti-Violence Project,

Services are fraught with potentials for re-victimization that pivots on homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism. To this end, the deleterious effects of homophobia and heterosexism cannot be discounted in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) survivors of IPV [interpersonal violence].” (Fountain & Skolnik, 2006)

In addition to societal stereotypes in regard to homosexuality, myths also exist around intimate partner abuse within GLBT relationships. Stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and expectations may lead others to think that women are not capable of battering and that men cannot be labeled as victims. As with heterosexual couples, abuse in GLBT relationships is not always physical, does not only occur between couples who cohabitate, and it happens between young dating partners as well as adults.

Legislation in regard to abuse within GLBT relationships is limited. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2008), 30 states and the District of Columbia have domestic violence laws that are gender neutral and include dating partners as well as those living together. Conversely, three states (Delaware, Montana, and South Carolina) have language that explicitly excludes same-sex partners from legal protection in cases of abuse.

Domestic Violence: Myth versus Fact

One of the major efforts of the domestic violence movement, from the beginning, has been to debunk commonly believed stereotypes and myths about domestic violence. This is important because an accurate awareness of the issue cannot occur within society if the general public believes that domestic violence is a problem that only affects certain groups of people and is therefore not in need of attention since it is not that common. In addition, one of the easiest ways to acquire an overall understanding of the basic elements of domestic violence is to debunk commonly believed stereotypes. For example, it is commonly believed that domestic violence only affects certain populations. As mentioned above, domestic violence occurs across all cultures, religions, ethnicities, income levels, sexual orientations, age groups, and education levels. Another myth is that domestic violence is not a common or serious problem when in fact, in the United States, a woman is battered every 9 seconds (NCVC, 2008). Another myth is that domestic violence is caused by substance abuse. In fact, many batterers abuse alcohol or drugs, but it is not an excuse for their violence, as not all abusers are alcoholics or addicts and not all alcoholics or addicts abuse their partners. While some substance abusers blame their addiction for their battering behavior, they mistakenly assume that if the substance abuse stops, so will the abuse. It is best to think of substance abuse as being correlated with the incidence of domestic violence.

Many believe that if a victim really wants to stop the abuse, she could easily just walk out. The fact is that it is often very difficult for an abuse victim to end the relationship. Victims stay with the batterer for many reasons, including but not limited to economic constraints, child issues, fear, and intimidation. People also assume that as soon as a victim leaves her abuser, she is safe. In reality, abuse victims are in the most danger after the relationship has ended. Another commonly accepted myth is that battering incidents are isolated behaviors. In reality, batterers use a cycle of power and control to keep their partner in the relationship. Abuse rarely happens just once. It can happen often, or only once a year, but most physical violence continues to escalate and happens more often as the relationship progresses.

Another commonly accepted myth is that domestic violence can only occur in instances of physical aggression. In fact, emotional and psychological abuse and control are just as damaging and dangerous to the victim as physical abuse. Finally, many believe the myth that abusers just have anger issues—that the battering can be stopped through anger management courses. The fact of the matter is that although many abusers batter when they are angry, they are using violence to maintain power and control over their partner. They do not batter just because their partner did something to make them mad. While there are intervention programs for batterers, anger management is only a small part of the process. Other issues such as the need for control; the misuse of power; and what constitutes a healthy, functioning relationship must be worked on as well. For this reason, batterer intervention treatment is much more comprehensive than anger management counseling.

Domestic Violence Legislation

While domestic violence has been criminalized in some way in every state, the degrees of the offense and penalties for offenders vary significantly from state to state. For a breakdown of the criminal code provisions, criminal procedure, and police and prosecutor training and guidelines as they vary among states, see Domestic Violence: A Review of State Legislation Defining Police and Prosecution Duties and Powers (N. Miller, 2004).

The criminal justice system has made substantial improvements and changes pertaining to domestic violence offenses over the past 15 years. According to Miller (2004), some of the more noteworthy changes include the adoption of anti-stalking laws in every state, the repeal or limitation of states’ spousal exemption laws in rape cases, and the passage of new domestic violence laws that provide unique penalties in family-related assault cases. In addition, every U.S. state now allows law enforcement personnel to make an arrest without a warrant for domestic violence cases, and penalties that offenders’ have to pay have been increased for violations of protective orders. In many states, reduced court fees and protection for nonmarried couples have made court protection more accessible. While each of these changes is a step in the right direction, domestic violence legislation remains inconsistent across the nation. Significant variations exist from state to state in the degree to which new laws have been adopted and in prosecution rates for offenders.

The most obvious indicator of the way a particular state legislates domestic violence offenses can be seen in whether it categorizes the offense as a misdemeanor or a felony. At the time this chapter was written, 11 states have yet to adopt laws explicitly dealing with domestic violence. Within the other 39 states, the first domestic violence offense can be treated as a felony in 9 states; the second domestic violence offense is treated as a felony in 7 states; and in 18 states, the third domestic violence offense is a felony. In addition, 13 states have enhanced penalties for violations of domestic violence law committed in the presence of a minor, and 3 states have instituted enhanced penalties for the assault of a pregnant woman (N. Miller, 2004).

As the recent changes in domestic violence law have benefited the domestic violence movement to a great extent, advances within law enforcement policies and enhanced prosecutor training have also been making a positive difference. Across the nation, entry-level training for police in most states now includes a domestic violence requirement, with a few states including in-service instruction as well as entry-level training. Also, some states have begun to require knowledge of written policies and procedures as they pertain to domestic violence as a component of law enforcement training (N. Miller, 2004). While the current advancements in police training have yet to reach consistency across the nation, they do provide a stark contrast to such training in the past. For example, police training as it existed in Chicago 40 years ago provided no training for domestic violence; however, it did include 1 hour of instruction on dealing with disturbances in general, out of a total 490 hours of training (Parnas, 1967). Prosecutor training for domestic violence cases has seen a slight improvement, but it lags behind law enforcement. To date, a mere four states require training for prosecutors in handling domestic violence cases; three others offer domestic violence instruction for prosecutors, but not as a requirement (N. Miller, 2004).

Overall, great strides have been made in domestic violence legislation, enforcement, and prosecution. However, the vast inconsistencies among states reveal the need for comprehensive, nationwide policies pertaining to the arrest and prosecution of offenders.

Effects of Legislation

The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment (MDVE) was conducted to determine whether arresting offenders for domestic violence significantly reduced subsequent arrests (Sherman & Berk, 1984). Many in the legislative community and elsewhere interpreted the MDVE results, which suggested that mandatory arrest could reduce future arrests, as a strong support for mandatory arrest laws for the law enforcement response to domestic violence. In fact, most states soon passed pro/mandatory arrest statutes, and law enforcement agencies implemented pro/mandatory arrest policies for cases of domestic violence. It did not take long, however, for the practice community to realize that there were going to be several unintended consequences of mandatory arrest policies. For example, as a result of mandatory arrest policies, female arrests for domestic violence have increased dramatically because often, officers who respond to domestic violence calls are unsure which partner is the primary aggressor. If the perpetrator has wounds as well as the victim, the officer is often unable to conclusively identify whose wounds are offensive and whose are defensive. Having not witnessed the altercation, the responding officer has no choice but to arrest both parties (Parmley, 2004). Some feel that as a result of the increased risk for arrest, victims of domestic violence may be less likely to contact the police, thus risking their safety and further enabling the abuser.

Others point to the more hidden consequences that mandatory arrests pose in regard to issues of race and class. As previously discussed, dual arrest rates surged as a result of mandatory arrest policies. For example, the rates of female arrests for domestic violence rose from 12.9% to 21% in the state of Maryland; from 6% to 16.5% in a California study; and shockingly, in the city of Sacramento alone, there was a 91% increase in women arrested, and a 7% decrease in men arrested (Chesney-Lind, 2002). Concurrently, African American females were arrested at almost 3 times the rate of Caucasian women in 1998 (Chesney-Lind, 2002).

In addition, various forms of racial bias have come to light as a result of increased arrest for domestic violence. For example, Maxwell, Garner, and Fagan’s (2001) reanalysis of the MDVE replication studies cites official arrest data showing that men of color are more likely to recidivate. On the other hand, victim interviews have shown that white men were more likely to batter again (Chesney-Lind, 2002). It is theorized that the disparity stems from a stronger likelihood for police to arrest suspects of color, as it has been shown that African American women are more likely to alert authorities when domestic violence has occurred. Accordingly, official data may reflect a disproportionate number of men of color as domestic violence offenders, which promotes racial stereotypes and leads to the overpolicing of people of color (Chesney-Lind, 2002).

Mandatory arrest policies may have caused unintended consequences for victims of lower socioeconomic class as well. For example, victims with limited resources may look to law enforcement as their best option to keep them safe. However, mandatory arrest policies increase the chances that the primary provider will be taken from the home, resulting in a loss of income. As a result, these victims may become less likely to call the police (S. Miller, 1989).

Others debate the issue of whether mandatory arrest policies have been helpful to victims or disempowered them. Many feminists profess ambivalence because they want to hold law enforcement accountable for keeping citizens safe, but they also feel that often a police officers’ power comes at the expense of women, particularly women of color and women of lower socioeconomic status (Coker, 2000).

Coker (2000) also discusses the consequence of having resources focused on arrests to the detriment of other benefits to victims, such as social programs leading to empowerment through education and job training. Having fewer social systems in place to support change leaves the criminal justice system with increased responsibility to produce results. Consequently, a failure on the part of the criminal justice system may breed victims’ antagonism toward the system, thus reducing their likelihood of using police and court assistance in the future, particularly if the consequences include dual arrest or even arrest of the offender against the victim’s wishes (Smith, 2000).

It is important to reiterate that there are benefits to mandatory arrest. For example, a mandatory arrest policy takes the decision out of the hands of the victims, and therefore the batterer should not hold the victim responsible for his or her prosecution. In addition, mandatory arrest policies send a punitive message to batterers and to the community that the criminal justice system responds to the crime of domestic violence in a harsh manner and holds offenders accountable. However, the unintended consequences of mandatory arrest must also be weighed when determining the best policy approach to this crime.

Domestic Violence Courts

Victims of domestic violence have long endured a culture of ignorance on the subject of domestic violence. Thus, it is no surprise that until the late 1970s, a wife was not able to file a protection order against her husband unless she also filed for divorce. Even so, restraining orders offered little in the way of protection by law enforcement or the criminal justice system; they were rarely monitored or enforced. The problem of domestic violence was largely viewed as a dilemma best addressed through counseling or crisis intervention programs rather than through the legal system. Yet, as the domestic violence movement worked to increase public awareness on the subject, it began to receive more attention from the legal system. Finally, domestic violence gradually came to be seen more seriously as a crime that is more appropriately addressed through the courts instead of family counseling sessions. However, even though awareness improved, negative stereotypes persisted as an impediment to prosecution. Offenders were rarely sentenced, and courts continued to turn toward family crisis intervention programs instead of taking punitive measures (Fagan, 1996).

The court system has seen a large influx of domestic violence cases since the implementation of mandatory arrest laws for offenders. Unfortunately, there is little conclusive research as to how these cases fared within the legal system (Henning & Feder, 2005). Advocates and the legal system began to grapple with an emerging need for across-the-board legal processes that could successfully resolve the social, human, and legal dilemmas pertaining to domestic violence cases. As a result, domestic violence cases are now commonly viewed as a distinctive legal phenomenon that should be handled similarly to drug or mental health cases that are handled in specialized drug courts or mental health courts (Mazur & Aldrich, 2003).

Although domestic abuse is a crime, the traditional court system is ill-equipped to deal with all of the complexities involved in domestic violence cases. Because these cases typically include extenuating concerns pertaining to children, property, finances, and victim safety, they necessitate legal services and procedures that are different from those in regular courts. As attention has turned to the unique circumstances of domestic violence cases, specialized courts have emerged in the United States to meet victims’ needs.

Similar to drug courts, there is no particular model that has been determined to be the “example court” model. What has emerged over the years, however, are common programming aspects that are usually indicative of a more progressive specialized court. Examples of these include case assignment, specialized judges, screening for related cases, intake units and case processing, service provision, and case monitoring. Ideally, cases are assigned to specific judges who specialize in domestic violence cases. The screening process determines whether victims or families are involved in other open cases or have prior involvement in domestic violence court. Often, however, screening is hampered by poor technology or limited information exchange. Thus, current court models seek to simplify the screening process and open information channels in order to obtain documents pertaining to specific victims or families. Because victims and offenders require community resources that apply specifically to their situation, domestic violence courts and community programs must be able to work together in order to provide needed services. Efficient domestic violence courts also include case monitoring. Effective coordination of services among the legal system, treatment providers, and victim advocates is enhanced through frequent meetings to exchange thoughts and ideas for improvements (Mazur & Aldrich, 2003). Overall, a common theme among successful models for domestic violence courts seeks to meet two main goals: victim safety and offender accountability.

Tsai (2000) did a multisite study to evaluate domestic violence court models. One of the specialized courts Tsai evaluated is located in Quincy, Massachusetts, an urban community outside of Boston. The Quincy court coordinates an integrated system of judges, clerks, law enforcement, social services, and local agencies to provide a comprehensive community response. Tsai concluded that the primary effectiveness of Quincy’s coordinated system stems from its ability to increase the victim’s sense of empowerment through an adequate provision of legal and community resources. Due to its ability to provide victims with the services they need to maintain their safety and successfully escape their abusive situation, Quincy’s domestic violence court is often used as a model for other cities.

Tsai (2000) also evaluated the domestic violence court of Dade County, Florida. The Dade County court model is based on therapeutic jurisprudence, which has its roots in mental health cases but has also come to the attention of experts as an appropriate response for domestic violence cases. The idea behind therapeutic jurisprudence is to enhance the psychological well-being of those who come into contact with the legal system (Winick, 1997). The Dade County domestic violence court prides itself on expanding its ideas and roles beyond that of the traditional legal system in order to reinforce victim empowerment, increase victim safety, and provide treatment alternatives to traditional penalties for offenders.

Positive findings were reported by a process and outcome evaluation of the Lexington County Domestic Violence Court in South Carolina (Gover, MacDonald, & Alpert, 2003). This study found that offenders who were processed in the specialized court had a 40% lower recidivism rate compared to a historical control group of offenders who were processed in traditional courts. This court also followed the tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence. In addition, Gover, Brank, and MacDonald (2007) reported that victims and offenders whose cases were processed in the domestic violence court found the court to have treated them with respect and thought that the process was fair, and also felt that they had a “voice” in the process in the sense that the judge listened to their side of the story and seemed concerned.


The purpose of this chapter was to review the topic of domestic violence from a criminology and criminal justice perspective. Domestic violence is the attempt by one person to obtain power and control over his or her intimate partner through psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. Victims of domestic violence are familiar with what is called the “cycle of violence,” which consists of three stages that victims of domestic violence continually cycle through at the hands of their batterers.

Although there is no specific way to identify a batterer before the abuse starts, the following are some common red flags to be aware of in a relationship: extreme jealousy or possessiveness, the need for control, rigid stereotypical views on gender roles, isolation from friends and family, economic control, extreme insecurity regarding the self or the relationship, and constantly checking up on or questioning the other’s whereabouts. Similarly, there is no way to identify a victim prior to the person’s victimization because this form of violence is pervasive in all cultures, faiths, educational levels, income levels, and sexual orientations. The domestic violence movement, with the help of the women’s movement, has made many strides toward improving the criminal justice system’s response to the crime of domestic violence. For example, although somewhat controversial, the passage of mandatory arrest laws have shown society that law enforcement officers are committed to holding offenders accountable for their actions. The development of domestic violence courts has indicated that the judicial system views domestic violence differently from other crimes and that it therefore needs its own system of offender processing. Despite the many ways in which the criminal justice system has evolved in its response to domestic violence in the past 40 years (Parnas, 1967), there is still much more work to do in the fight against domestic violence.