We identified 517 cases of domestic violence in our nationally representative survey and asked family members whether they reported to the police—and, if they did, how the police and criminal justice system handled their cases. What we found are cracks in the system and lots of them. In the end, you won't believe how few people who commit domestic violence ever spend even a single day in jail.
Start: 517 cases of domestic violence.
Crack #1: Not reported to the police.
This is the biggest "crack." Only about 1 in 4 cases of domestic violence are reported to the police. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, not all of them bad. In some places—Ferguson, Missouri comes to mind—calling the police might create more problems than it solves. In other cases, some other, more informal intervention might happen.
It is important to realize that in some cases, victims might not be physically able to call the police, either because of their injuries or because the assault happens in a socially isolated place where they cannot access their telephone.
Number of cases left after Crack #1: 130
Crack #2: The police do not investigate.
This was the most surprising crack and one that "disappears" from many official police records. Even we were shocked to see that out of those 130 reports to the police—already a select and, on average, more serious group of incidents—that in 27 of those cases police never showed up in person to investigate. That is 1 in 5 dismissed on the phone! Domestic violence is a serious problem that should not be getting screened out over the telephone.
Number of cases left after Crack #2: 103
Crack #3: Police do not arrest.
All 50 states have, in recent years, passed probable cause, mandatory arrest, or other laws to encourage or require police officers to make an arrest in a domestic violence incident. I am actually a fan of police discretion—there are too many situations, probably millions, for any one-size-fits-all approach. However, only 3 in 5 cases that were investigated by police led to an arrest. Perhaps even more surprisingly, this rate was not higher in mandatory arrest states than in other states!
Number of cases left after Crack #3: 61
Crack #4: Criminal charges never filed.
This is one that must be frustrating for police officers. Domestic violence incidents are some of the most dangerous calls that they go out on and they are already applying a lot of discretion in who they choose to arrest. Laws have also changed so that "victimless prosecution" is possible—the district attorney can usually proceed without the testimony of the victim. So imagine law enforcement's frustration that in a large number of cases, the prosecuting attorney's office never files charges. This probably happens more often than people realize—our data are similar to other research in this area. For 18 of these perpetrators, they get out of the system here. Almost 1 in 3 do not have charges filed.
Number of cases left after this crack: 43
Crack #5: No conviction or guilty plea.
Now we are truly down to a very select group of perpetrators—less than 10 percent of the original sample. And yet, probably much to the frustration and chagrin of prosecuting attorneys, less than half are ever convicted or plead guilty in a plea agreement.
Number of cases left after this crack: 16
Crack #6: No jail time
Out of those 16, still more than a third never spend more than a single day in jail. Not one day! I know I was personally shocked by these data because I developed a whole series of questions about the length of the jail term, whether they were released early, whether they received probation after their incarceration, etc. I would never have devoted that space in our survey if I'd known those questions would be asked about only 10 incidents.
Earlier data on domestic violence arrests were similarly grim, but I really believed that the system had changed. It is not often that I feel naïve about the system, but these data made me feel that way.
Number of cases left after this crack: 10
Less than 2 percent of domestic violence offenders ever received any jail time.
I do not think that all 517 of these perpetrators deserved to spend time in jail. However, I am pretty sure more than 10 did. More than a third of these cases involved some kind of physical injury and 61 involved an injury bad enough to need medical attention. So 61 might be a good minimum starting point for how many of these offenders should have been convicted for assault.
The next time you wonder why a victim did not call the police, remember that more than 90 percent of the time, when the police are called, the offender does not go to jail. Even in this day and age, calling the police is not a way to get a domestic violence offender out of the house. That needs to change.
Need help for domestic violence? The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a free call in the United States: 1-800-799-7233. They can help connect you to local resources. You can also chat with them on the website.
© 2014 Sherry Hamby
This article is based on Intervention Following Family Violence: Best Practices and Helpseeking Obstacles in a Nationally Representative Sample of Families With Children by Sherry Hamby, David Finkelhor, & Heather Turner and appearing in the journal Psychology of Violence.