New Study of Domestic Violence Finds Mandatory Arrests Backfire


A University of Maryland criminology professor whose startling findings on repeated domestic violence nearly 10 years ago resulted in mandatory arrest laws for offenders in 15 states and the District of Columbia, now says his further studies show that arresting attackers often does more harm than good for the victims of domestic violence.

The five-year study conducted by Lawrence W. Sherman, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Crime Control Institute, was commissioned by the Justice Department and released recently by the crime institute in Washington.

The new study challenges Sherman’s own 1983 findings, which supported the prevailing theory among criminologists that the best way to protect battered women from further violence is to arrest attackers.


Sherman’s more recent and extensive findings show that mandatory arrests may exacerbate domestic battery, and he has begun a call for the repeal of mandatory arrest laws.

“This is not a matter of ideology,” said Sherman, whose new study has aroused the ire of women’s groups across the country.

“We can’t say for sure that mandatory arrests help battered women,” he said. “But we can say for sure that in some cases it’s going to backfire, especially among the unemployed.”

Sherman said it now appears mandatory arrest laws “work for employed whites and make it worse for unemployed blacks. In places like (Washington) D.C. with its high rate of unemployment, a mandatory arrest policy is like throwing oil on the flames.”

BACKGROUND: Nearly 10% of all homicides in the United States are committed by spouses, according to Linda E. Saltzman, a criminologist who specializes in family violence for the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

One out of every three women murdered in the United States is killed by a husband or boyfriend, says Saltzman. Only 4% of the men murdered in the United States are killed by their wives or girlfriends.

Sherman’s 1983 study, based on 328 cases of domestic violence in Minneapolis, spurred Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia to pass mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence offenders.

Some of these states call for mandatory arrests only when the offender violates a restraining order. Others mandate the arrest of offenders any time an officer deems probable cause that a misdemeanor has been committed.

But last month, Sherman completed an extensive study of 1,200 cases of domestic violence in Milwaukee. (The Justice Department had commissioned the Milwaukee study and similar ones in five other cities in an attempt to verify the 1983 Minneapolis study.)

In keeping with his Minneapolis results, Sherman found in the Milwaukee study that if no arrest was made after apparent abuse, a domestic violence victim had a 7% chance of being battered again immediately after the police left the scene. If an arrest was made, the victim had only a 2% chance of being battered immediately when reunited with the offender.

But taking the study further, Sherman found fewer benefits in arresting the abuser. Just 60 days after the offense, the study found there is no difference between arrested and non-arrested offenders in their risk of repeat violence. And by the end of one year, arrests increased the rate of domestic violence by 44% among unemployed suspects and reduced it by 16% among employed suspects.

He says the results show that mandatory arrest laws favor people who are better off. Unemployed offenders, because of economic stresses, become more violent after arrest.

THE ISSUES: Sherman contends that mandatory arrests are a “cheap solution” for a wide variety of social problems. He says money would be better spent protecting women by building more battered women shelters than by jailing the assailants.

But that is precisely where many legislators and domestic violence specialists differ.

“We have more than one goal in our criminal justice system,” says Shirley Krug, a member of Wisconsin’s House of Representatives and the author of legislation that enacted mandatory arrest laws in Wisconsin after Sherman’s 1984 report.

“There’s deterrent, but also punishment,” said Krug. “We don’t have people calling for the repeal of burglary laws because they don’t have a deterrent effect. Why not arrest someone who has committed a crime? A crime is a crime is a crime. It should be treated the same in a home as it is on the street.”

Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who has presented a package of bills that would allow testimony on a history of battery to be included in the defense of women accused of assaulting their spouses or boyfriends, says mandatory arrest laws should not be repealed.

“When people batter, they want to overpower, and they overpower when they can get away with it. Unless it’s against the law, it won’t be stopped,” Morella said.