NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Experts Questioning Domestic Abuse Assumptions

November 20, 2002

For several decades, advocates for women built a network of shelters for battered women and tried to get domestic violence defined as a serious crime. They lobbied for new state laws that would remove the police's discretion and mandate arrests for domestic violence. And their efforts were successful.

Mandatory arrests have become a linchpin of the government's efforts to address the issue. They are seen as the way to protect women, punish offenders, deter future violence and send a message that spousal abuse won't be tolerated.

Now, though, a growing number of professionals are questioning the effectiveness of mandatory arrest policies.

  • Making more arrests and ensnaring more couples in the criminal justice system has not proved itself as a policy of deterrence, they say.
  • And arrests sometimes backfire -- especially in inner-city neighborhoods -- causing unintended problems for some of the women.
  • Serious violence, physical and sexual, experts say, is only part of the problem -- and they are equally concerned about psychological and emotional abuse that warps so many lives.

Battered women often remain deeply involved with their abusers, want to remain with them, and resent the intrusion of the government. Many women refuse to testify against their husbands, putting counselors and law enforcement personnel in a difficult position.

Some critics are beginning to question whether the criminal justice system can ever be up to the task of sorting out the psychologically dark and emotionally tangled world of domestic violence and abuse.

Source: Deborah Sontag, "Fierce Entanglements," The New York Times Magazine, November 17, 2002.


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