The Cautionary Instruction: Study links domestic violence arrest policies to premature death

Friday, 23 May 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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A study following up on a 1980s report about mandatory domestic violence arrest policies in Milwaukee was the centerpiece of this week’s annual Jerry Lee Symposium on Evidence-Based Crime Policy in Washington, D.C.

The symposium is named for Jerry Lee a Philadelphia radio station owner, and native of New Castle, Pennsylvania, who has funded criminology research at the University of Pennsylvania and Cambridge University in England.

The study, Increased death rates of domestic violence victims from arresting vs. warning suspects in the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment, found increased death rates among victims when suspects were arrested, rather than merely warned, by police.

"The foundational question being begged by this research is an important and understudied one: Is the criminal justice system the best societal response to non-felonious domestic assault?" Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn asked when the report was released.

Researchers highlighted the findings that victims were 64 percent more likely to have died of all causes, such as heart disease, cancer or other illness, if their partner was arrested rather than warned, and noted that among African-American victims, arrest increased early mortality by 98 percent while white victims saw mortality increased from arrest by 9 percent.

The study was a follow-up to the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment from 1987-1989 and undertaken by the same primary researcher, Lawrence W. Sherman, a University of Maryland professor and director of Cambridge University's Police Executive Program. Sherman was formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, where I had the chance to observe his research first-hand as a student in Penn’s criminology program.

At this week's conference, Sherman contended that "criminal penalties have enormous side effects. They do not always deter crime, and they may increase crime." He went on to say, "We should get away from a one-size-fits-all policy."

Flynn and other speakers said that more research is needed to provide law enforcers with better guidance on the effectiveness of arrests versus other tactics, such as referring alleged abusers to social services, reported The Crime Report. He noted that of 81 domestic violence homicides in Milwaukee in the last eight years, suspects in 61 of them had prior arrest records.

Flynn refrained from concluding that the arrests somehow provoked the killings and should not have been made.

Previous studies have shown post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) to be prevalent in victims of domestic violence, and that low but chronic PTSS has been linked to premature death from coronary heart disease and other health problems.

“The impact of seeing a partner arrested could create a traumatic event for the victim, one that raises their risk of death. An arrest may cause more trauma in concentrated black poverty areas than in white working-class neighborhoods, for reasons not yet understood,” concluded the report.

The exact cause of the surprising results remains a “medical mystery,” says Professor Sherman.

(Top image: moodboard/Thinkstock)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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