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Prosecutorial Decision Making in Domestic Violence Cases: Are Prosecutors Holding Offenders Accountable?

Wagers, S., Pate, M., & Busick, T. (2022).

Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 9(0), 1 – 23.


This study explored which legal and extra-legal factors impact prosecutorial filing decisions in domestic violence cases.

Expanded Abstract:

Researchers estimate that 12 million people are affected by domestic violence (DV) every year in the United States, with 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men experiencing severe physical violence (e.g., kicked, strangled, burned on purpose, beaten, having a weapon used against them) in their lifetime (Smith, Zhang, Basile et al., 2018). Due to its prevalence, repeat nature, and dangerousness, DV has become an ongoing, serious and costly issue for the criminal justice system, with DV cases constituting an average of 25% of the criminal court docket in most jurisdictions (Truman & Morgan, 2015). However, the intimate nature of the victim–offender relationship makes DV cases challenging to process through the criminal court system (Garner & Maxwell, 2008). 

To date, the research on DV and criminal court processes has examined the types of arrest charges associated with DV (Bechtel et al., 2012; Bond & Jeffries, 2014), victim characteristics and barriers to law enforcement collaborations (Smith, Dunrose, & Langan, 2008), case factors predicting sentencing types and lengths (Orloff, 2014), the role of defense counsel (Cohen, 2014), and the frequency at which DV cases are dismissed or charged (Dawson & Dinovitzer, 2001). However, little attention has been paid to prosecutorial decision making and little is known about which legal and extralegal factors impact the likelihood a prosecutor will file charges in a DV case (extra-legal factors are factors outside the law, such as the suspect's race, sex, age, and demeanor).

Both historically and today, advocates point out there continues to be a lack of prosecution in DV cases (Harper & Gover, 2021). Additionally, empirical research continues to demonstrate a distinct relationship between early acts of violence in intimate relationships and future acts of violence and homicide (Campbell, et al., 2003). The lack of prosecution rates combined with the risk for future harm and homicide in DV cases has led to heavy criticism levied at prosecutors (Buzawa et al., 2017).

This study explored which legal and extra-legal factors impact prosecutorial filing decisions in domestic violence (DV) cases. The study utilized data collected from 731 misdemeanor and felony DV cases from an urban County in Florida between January 2017 – December 2018. Two binomial logistic regression models (A binomial logistic regression, often referred to simply as logistic regression, predicts the probability that an observation falls into one of two categories of a dichotomous dependent variable based on one or more independent variables that can be either continuous or categorical) were used to predict the likelihood a DV case would be filed on any charge, filed on a DV specific charge or not filed. 

Results showed some support for focal concerns (Focal Concerns Theory is comprised of three major components or “factors”: (1) blameworthiness of the offender, (2) protection of the community, and (3) practical considerations for the system), but findings suggest that factors impacting this decision vary based upon case severity (i.e., misdemeanor, felony). A weapon present decreased the filing likelihood for misdemeanor cases but victim requests not to prosecute and a public attorney decreased filing likelihood for felonies. The prosecutor’s decision to file charges is a powerful tool to keep victims safe and should be based on legal facts and risk of future harm, but here these factors had little to no impact on this decision.