Mandatory Arrest: No Panacea


In the search for solutions to domestic violence, mandatory arrest has considerable appeal. Arrest underscores the message that physical abuse within the home is as serious as violence on the streets, and that the criminal justice system will treat it seriously. Some studies have shown that arrests, especially when the accused is kept overnight in jail, can reduce further instances of abuse.

There's one hitch -- policies governing arrests are only one part of the criminal justice system, and piecemeal "solutions" can make things worse. One of the earliest and best-known studies on domestic violence was conducted by Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. The study, known as "the Minneapolis experiment," found that arrest seemed to have a deterrent effect on acts of violence.

But further studies have muddied the waters. For instance, in households where men were unemployed, researchers found that if the man was arrested, women were more likely to be beaten again. Why does the unemployment factor stand out? As in much else about domestic violence, that remains unclear. A 1992 survey of state domestic violence codes noted that, on the whole, the debate about the wisdom of mandatory arrest policies remains "uninformed by research."

Even so, there is a trend toward mandatory arrests. More than a dozen states have laws requiring the arrest of perpetrators when a police officer concludes that a crime involving domestic violence has occurred; a number of jurisdictions have instituted policies to that effect. Under Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, the Baltimore City Police Department is rewriting its policies to require officers to arrest people accused of abusing their partners if evidence of physical violence is apparent.

If those policies are part of a comprehensive plan, they have a better chance of succeeding: It doesn't help for police to treat domestic violence seriously unless the court system is prepared to do the same. Otherwise the message doesn't stick, and perpetrators are soon free to seek revenge.

There are no quick solutions. Mandatory arrest can help -- if it is part of a comprehensive approach involving police, prosecutors, judges, support services for victims and sentencing policies for perpetrators. Outside that context, mandatory arrest can inadvertently make the problem worse.

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