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Deterring domestic violence: Do criminal sanctions reduce repeat offenses?

Abstract

This study presents an empirical analysis of domestic violence case resolution in North Carolina for the years 2004 to 2010. The key hypothesis is that penalties at the level set for domestic violence crimes reduce recidivism (re-arrest on domestic violence charges or conviction in 2 years following an index arrest). We use state court data for all domestic violence-related arrests. Decisions to commit an act of domestic violence are based on a Bayesian process of updating subjective beliefs. Individuals have prior beliefs about penalties for domestic violence based on actual practice in their areas. An individual’s experience with an index arrest leads to belief updating. To address endogeneity of case outcomes, we use an instrumental variables strategy based on decisions of prosecutors and judges assigned to each index arrest in our sample. Contrary to our hypothesis, we find that penalities, at least as set at the current levels, do not deter future arrests and convictions.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    See, e.g., Robinson (2000), Simpson et al. (2006), Hirschel et al. (2007), and Simon et al. (2010). An estimate in Eitle (2005) of 49% is higher, but the data came from police departments primarily subject to mandatory arrest policies.

  2. 2.

    We suppress subscripts for individuals here and elsewhere.

  3. 3.

    Durham, North Carolina at one time had a domestic violence court consisting of special judges and special prosecutors assigned to domestic violence cases. Even in this case, the judges and prosecutors may have been randomly assigned within the specialized court, but we did not examine this.

  4. 4.

    On Soundex, see http://searches.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/Genea/soundex.sh (accessed 7/8/11).

  5. 5.

    The arrest may be for several charges including a DV-related charge. The categories in the table are for the DV-related charge, but the penalties include those for any charge on the DV arrest for which the person was convicted.

  6. 6.

    North Carolina maintains an electronic database on time served by persons sent to state prison. Relatively few persons convicted of a DV sentence are sent to prison in this state. The vast majority of incarcerations for DV are in county jails. In a survey of county jails we conducted in early 2012, we were only able to identify three North Carolina counties that maintained electronic records of the incarcerations under their management. Thus, the relationship between jail time at sentencing and actual jail time is unknown.

  7. 7.

    Comparing these values with those in Fig. 1 indicates that re-arrests within the year of the index arrest are substantially less likely to be prosecuted than is the index arrest.

  8. 8.

    We acknowledge that even a night in jail may be viewed by at least some potential offenders as costly. See Polinsky and Shavell (1999) for a conceptual discussion of the disutility of jail time. How the marginal disutility of jail time changes as a function of days in jail is unknown.

  9. 9.

    For example, compare the variation in criminal penalties shown in Table 2 with those for civil penalties in medical malpractice litigation (e.g., Sloan and Hsieh (1990)).

  10. 10.

    Another possibility is that standard economic models of behavior do not apply in the context of domestic violence. Rejecting such models opens up nearly an infinite number of possibilities. DeRiviere (2008) discusses complexities not considered by conceptual and empirical economic research to date. Unfortunately, the data needed to study the types of complexities she mentions empirically, e.g., the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the endogeneity of human capital, are well beyond data sets currently available to researchers.

  11. 11.

    As opposed to retrospectively as in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (see Lochner (2007)). However, retrospective data are far better than nothing.

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Correspondence to Frank A. Sloan.

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This research was supported in part by a grant from Public Health Law Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This sponsor had no involvement in study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. We thank in particular Nora Gordon, Bas van der Klaauw, Eric Plug, and Max Schanzenbach for helpful comments at earlier stages of this study.

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Sloan, F.A., Platt, A.C., Chepke, L.M. et al. Deterring domestic violence: Do criminal sanctions reduce repeat offenses?. J Risk Uncertain 46, 51–80 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11166-012-9159-z

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Keywords

  • Crime
  • Domestic violence
  • Deterrence
  • Subjective beliefs
  • Prosecutors
  • Judges

JEL Classification

  • K14
  • K36
  • K42