For Many, the Violence Against Women Act is a Deadly Proposition

Stop Abusive and Violent Environments

February 8, 2013

The Violence Against Women Act was supposed to curb partner violence and reduce homicides. But has VAWA lived up to its promises?
Let’s take a look at the facts:

Sec. 101: Prosecution
Twenty-five percent of the $200 million awarded each year under VAWA Section 101 is allocated to the prosecution of domestic violence cases. Prosecution of domestic assault cases with evidence of probable cause is indeed appropriate and necessary.
But have VAWA-funded prosecutors become overly zealous?

Prosecution of Restraining Order Violations
A DOJ-funded analysis of prosecution policies in 48 large cities found aggressive prosecution was linked to increases in homicides for white wives and black and white unmarried women:
Being “willing to prosecute cases of protection order violation may aggravate already tumultuous relationships… As the [prosecutor] willingness index increases by one, the expected number of white wives killed nearly doubles.” [1]

No-Drop Prosecution
One evaluation of prosecution policies in Indianapolis found that allowing victims to “drop charges significantly reduces their risk of further violence after a suspect has been arrested on a victim-initiated warrant, when compared with usual [mandatory prosecution] policies.” [2] In other words, no-drop prosecution significantly increases the risk of future violence.

Death Toll
Thirty-four states mandate arrest for violation of a restraining order, and two-thirds of prosecutors’ offices around the country have implemented mandatory domestic violence prosecution policies. [3] So overly aggressive prosecution policies are contributing to hundreds of needless deaths each year.

Sec. 102: Protective Orders
Each year, VAWA awards $60 million to jurisdictions to enforce Protective Orders. But the shortcomings of such orders are legion:

• The Supreme Court case Town of Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales arose after a court-ordered restraining order failed to avert a triple-homicide. [4]
• A letter from the National Association of Attorneys General to Congress highlighted this case: “In Maine last summer, an abusive husband subject to a protective order murdered his wife and two young children before taking his own life.” [5]

Research confirms the general ineffectiveness of Protective Orders. For example, an analysis of domestic violence policies in 48 cities concluded restraining orders bring about “increases in the number of black women killed by their unmarried partners.” [6]

A review of 119 homicide-suicides in North Carolina found that issuance of a Protective Order was the most important precursor to homicide-suicides, occurring in 41% of such cases. [7]

A recent research summary concludes, “greater evidence suggests POs are violated, and victims are re-victimized after POs are issued….For instance, mothers who take out POs are more likely to be re-victimized, experiencing greater aggression and poorer health.” [8]

At best, Protection Orders are ineffective. At worst, Protection Orders maim and kill.

Sec. 102: Mandatory Arrest
VAWA Section 102 also funds the enforcement of domestic violence arrest policies. According to the American Bar Association, the following 20 states have mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence assault on the books: AK, AZ, CO, CT, DC, IA, KS, LA, ME, MS, NV, NJ, NY, OH, OR, SC, SD, UT, VA, and WA.

But these policies are hurting, not helping:

• In Milwaukee, one study concluded “an across-the-board policy of mandatory arrest prevents 2,504 acts of violence against primarily white women, at the price of 5,409 acts of violence against primarily Black women.” [9]
• Harvard researcher Radha Iyengar analyzed the impact of mandatory arrest in 15 states. Her conclusion: “intimate partner homicides increased by about 60% in states with mandatory arrest laws.” Stated another way, mandatory arrest policies are “responsible for an additional 0.8 murders per 100,000 people.”  [10] This translates into over 600 deaths each year. [11]

No wonder criminal justice expert Lawrence Sherman has termed mandatory arrest policies a flat-out “failure.” [12]

Stubborn Denial
Many of the studies featured in this report were funded by the Department of Justice. Their findings are posted on the DOJ website and have been widely disseminated.

The lethal effects of VAWA-funded policies were recognized long before the current versions of the VAWA reauthorization bills, S. 47 and H.R. 11, were drafted and introduced in Congress. But the current VAWA bills completely fail to address these problems.

A triumph of ideology over science and common-sense.

Additional documentation: How Effective are Domestic Violence Programs in Stopping Partner Abuse?


[1] Dugan L, Nagin D, Rosenfeld R. Exposure Reduction or Backlash? The Effects of Domestic Violence Resources on Intimate Partner Homicide. Final Report to the National Institute of Justice. 2001.

[2] Ford DA, Regoli MG. Criminal Prosecution of Wife Assaulters: Process, Problems, and Effects. In Hilton NZ (ed):  Legal Responses to Wife Assault: Current Trends and Evaluation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 1993. p. 157.

[3] Rebovich D. Prosecution response to domestic violence: Results of a survey of large jurisdictions. In Buzawa E and Buzawa C (eds.): Do Arrests and Restraining Orders Work? Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.

[4] Town of Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales. Decided June 27, 2005.

[5] Letter from the National Association of Attorneys General to Members of Congress, dated Jan. 11, 2012.

[6] Dugan L, Nagin D, and Rosenfeld R. Exposure Reduction or Backlash? The Effects of Domestic Violence Resources on Intimate Partner Homicide. Final Report to the National Institute of Justice. 2001.

[7] Morton E, Runyan CW, Moracco KE, Butts J. Partner homicide-suicide involving female victims: A population based study in North Carolina, 1988-1992. Violence and Victims Vol. 13, No. 2, 1998.

[8] Russell B. Effectiveness, victim safety, characteristics, and enforcement of protective orders. Partner Abuse Vol. 3, No. 4, 2012.

[9] Sherman LW et al. The Variable Effects of Arrest on Criminal Careers: The Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 83, 1992, pp. 137–169.

[10] Iyengar R. Does the certainty of arrest reduce domestic violence? Evidence from mandatory and recommended arrest laws. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. 2007.

[11] Adult population in the 20 mandatory arrest states: 75,296,000. Excess homicides caused by mandatory arrest: (0.8 times 75,296,000) divided by 100,000 persons  = 602 deaths

[12] Quoted in Sontag S. Fierce entanglements. New York Times Magazine, November 17, 2002, p. 56.