Judicial Decision-Making and Domestic Violence Cases: Sentencing and the Victim-Offender Relationship

Ronit Dinovitzer, American Bar Foundation
Myrna Dawson, York University

It is commonly argued that cases of domestic violence are treated more leniently in the courts than violent crimes that do not involve intimates. The primary research emphasis, then, has been to compare the criminal justice treatment of domestic and non-domestic violent acts. As a result, there has been little empirical research that has systematically examined sentence variation within a sample of domestic violence cases. This analysis examines this issue by drawing on unique data from a specialized domestic violence court. The purpose of our analysis is twofold. First, we examine the likelihood of a defendant receiving a custodial sentence and, second, if a custodial sentence is handed down, we examine the length of that sentence. Guiding our research is the common assumption that the primary goal of criminal justice officials has historically and continues to be to keep famjilies together when faced with domestic violence. A key focus of our analysis, then, is comparing the treatment of domestic violence cases that involve couples who are estranged to the treatment of victims and offenders who are still in a relationship. We hypothesize that offenders who victimize partners from whom they are estranged will be more likely to receive custodial sentences and receive longer sentences than those offenders who victimize a current partner.

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Updated 05/20/2006