An American Bar Association Task Force once reported the body of federal law has become so large that “there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes.” That statement was made back in 1998. Ten years later, an estimated 4,450 federal crimes are on the books (1). And that number continues to grow.

Following passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994, states enacted  1,500 new domestic violence laws from 1997 to 2003 (2). These facts highlight how our current approach to curbing domestic violence has become overly reliant on the criminal justice system:

Vague and Overly-Broad Definitions:

A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control states that domestic violence includes “getting annoyed if the victim disagrees,” “withholding information from the victim,” and “disregarding what the victim wants” (3). Most state civil statutes define domestic violence to include emotional states such as “fear,” “being afraid,” and even “annoyance” (4).

Restraining Orders

Even though 2-3 million restraining orders are issued each year, there is no solid evidence to show these orders deter physical abuse (5). In some cases, issuance of a restraining order can have the opposite effect. As the American Bar Association notes, “a court order might even add to the [alleged offender’s] rage.” (6).


Each year one million Americans are arrested on allegations of domestic violence. But evidence points to the fact that mandatory-arrest policies place victims at greater risk of violence (7). Only 30% of arrestees are convicted of the offense (8), suggesting large numbers of persons are being detained based on weak evidence.

Civil Rights:

Constitutional guarantees of probable-cause for arrest, due process, and equal treatment under the law have become compromised (9). These civil rights violations led the Washington Civil Rights Council to compare our current approach to stopping domestic violence laws to the infamous Jim Crow era (10).

The rapid growth of domestic violence laws at both the federal and state levels has contributed to the over-criminalization of America.


(1) Heritage Foundation. Solutions for America: Overcriminalization. Vol. 15. August 17, 2010.

(2) Miller N. What does research and evaluation say about domestic violence laws? A compendium of justice system laws and related research assessments. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Law and Justice, 2005. Footnote 28.

(3) Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. Expanding definitions of domestic violence. Rockville, MD. 2010.

(4) Saltzman LE et al. Intimate Partner Violence Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control, 2002. p. 61.

(5)Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. How effective are domestic violence programs in stopping partner abuse? Rockville, MD. 2010.

(6) American Bar Association. American Bar Association Family Legal Guide. Chicago, IL. 2004.

(7) 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.

(8) Garner JH, Maxwell CD. Prosecution and conviction rates for intimate partner violence. Criminal Justice Review Vol. 34, No. 1, 2009. Table 2.

(9) Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. Are domestic violence policies respecting our fundamental freedoms? Rockville, MD. 2010.

(10) Washington Civil Rights Council. Biggest civil rights roll-back since Jim Crow era. October 13, 2009.

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