Researching and Reimagining Domestic Violence Reform

Last year, The Violence Against Women Act (enacted in 1994) was up for reauthorization in Congress. In response, over 100 organizations comprised of state DV coalitions and criminal justice institutions argued for solutions to a “Broken Domestic Violence System” (Buchbinder, 2020). On Sept 21, 2021, the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence created a national action plan on gender-based violence that called for additional training, funding for representation, and alternatives to the criminal justice system and addressing racial bias in DV. Such organizations call for significant changes to domestic violence programs and policies, expressing concern about the over-emphasis on “increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution” to domestic violence. For example, many jurisdictions have policies that mandate or encourage arrest for DV cases. Mandatory arrest triggers the workings of the rest of the criminal justice system leading to prosecution, imprisonment, probation, and parole. Studies on mandatory arrest have found arrests cause retaliation and often increase domestic violence (Iyengar, 2009; Thebaud & Kim, 2020). Approximately 50% of domestic violence incidents involve mutual physical abuse, yet women represent only 16% of defendants in domestic aggravated assault cases. The National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence survey (2022) recently reported lifetime rates for IPV in women were 47.3% and 44.2% for men. Yet, primary aggressor laws in 21 states typically result in arresting the male, based on the International Association of Chiefs of Police instructions to consider the size and strength of the assailant. Such policies do not deter offenders (Buzawa & Buzawa, 2003; Rempel et al., 2008). In states with “no-drop” policies, many victims do not want the offender to be arrested. Instead, they just want the abuse to stop (Iyenger, 2007), and research has found that failing to respect victim preferences resulted in decreased calls for subsequent abuse (Hotaling & Buzawa, 2003). We can use alternatives to arrest to divert individuals into mental health treatment, and counseling instead of arrest and options to the current punitive criminal justice approaches to DV.

Prosecution of domestic violence has and continues to demonstrate various forms of partiality. Studies have found that women receive more leniency in prosecution (Henning & Reneauer, 2005; Lantz, 2020), fewer punitive charges, and more plea deals for female defendants (MacNeil et al., 2020). Even the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has published a Domestic Violence Committee Position Statement emphasizing the need for criminal justice reform, highlighting treatment alternatives, diversion programs, and restorative justice. A panel of 4 experts in domestic violence and three staffers of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence came up with legislative recommendations that inform legislative change ( According to Coalition to End Domestic Violence, there are alternative programs located in 18 states that have adopted reforms designed to relieve court dockets, lower incarceration, and criminal justice costs, reduce recidivism and provide greater victim and family support.

Drs. Brenda Russell, John Hamel, and Jennifer Cox created a study to examine attorneys’ and police officers’ endorsement of the proposed reforms. The survey examines the extent to which attorneys and police officers perceive such reforms would be more beneficial than existing policies. These two populations are essential to evaluate as they work closely with domestic violence defendants and victims. The surveys comprise 43 questions about proposed reforms and assess the willingness to endorse reforms and consider their concerns about the current process based on their experience in the field. Our research team has also interviewed individuals who implement various domestic violence reforms in their states.

The study is computer-based and made available on any computer with internet access. If you are involved in implementing any new programs in your state or know law enforcement (corrections, probation, parole, law enforcement) or attorneys interested in participating, please get in touch with Brenda Russell at for further information and a link to the study.