The Influence of Victim Offender Relationship On Prosecutorial and Judicial Decision Making in Cases of Domestic Violence
Method: This study utilized simple random sampling, involved an archival analysis of non-computerized court records and examined a ten-year period (2000-2010) at Salem District Court in Essex County, Massachusetts. For this investigation, we began with 5,000 randomly selected docket numbers. These cases were pulled, reviewed and after non-assault and battery cases were disqualified, the remaining sample was 435. The majority of victims (86.2%) and offenders (80.6%) were White, which is consistent with demographics for this county. The decision to prosecute and sentencing outcome (both in type and length) were individually evaluated for statistically significant discrepancies between domestic violence offenders and non-domestic violence offenders, as well as based on the degree of victim-offender relationship.
Our conceptual definition of victim-offender relationship corresponded with that of Henning and Feder’s (2005) and Dawson (2004), where the relationship between victim and offender at the time of the crime was classified on a social scale of intimacy: stranger, acquaintance, family member and intimate partner. We constructed a four category measure of victim-offender relationship to use as a proxy variable for degree of intimacy. A “higher degree” of intimacy was hypothesized to correlate with more leniency for the offender. Each relationship was entered into the model as a dummy variable (0,1) with “stranger” as the reference group.
Findings: The findings indicated that the likelihood of a case not being prosecuted was affected by whether it was a domestic violence incident (55% of domestic violence cases versus 28% of the non-domestic violence cases were dismissed). It was also found that if a case was prosecuted, the closer the victim-offender relationship (intimate partner versus stranger), the more likely the prosecutor was to dismiss the case or the judge was to sentence leniently. Fifty six percent of domestic violence offenders who were charged received a suspended sentence, also referred to as Continued Without a Finding (CWAF) versus 21% of the non-domestic violence offenders.
Conclusions and Implications: This study provides important information for those in the fields of domestic violence. Those in the advocacy sector require a realistic expectation of the system so that they may best aid victims throughout the process. If arrest is followed by certain dismissal by a prosecutor or lenient sentencing by a judge, how can significant impact on future domestic violence be expected. Explanations of the findings and recommendations for further research are discussed.