Although there is no standard model of a “domestic violence court,” the term generally means a specialized court division where only domestic violence cases are filed or a specialized docket on which a trial court, which hears other types of cases, assigns domestic violence cases and hears them on a particular day or time.
In the United States today, there are over two hundred specialized domestic violence courts. Canada has over fifty, and there are close to one hundred in the United Kingdom. Over half of the American courts are located in just five states: New York, Washington, Florida, California, and Alabama.
In 2000, researchers were able to identify only forty-two domestic violence courts, so the number has grown rapidly in just over a decade. Across the country, most domestic violence specialized courts handle an exclusively criminal caseload, but there are variations. In smaller jurisdictions, judges might set aside one or two sessions a week in which to hear domestic violence cases, while in other locales the domestic violence caseload may be high enough to require a full-time docket.
In Miami, Florida, for example, there are seven judges assigned full-time to the domestic violence division, and they hear both civil and criminal domestic violence cases. A first offender in that jurisdiction is likely to receive a minimum suspended sentence of a year in jail, reporting to probation and mandatory participation in a batterer’s intervention program, parenting classes, and substance abuse treatment, if warranted. The Miami courts also feature “Court Care,” a drop-in day care service for children whose parents or guardians must be in court.
Indiana’s own Marion County is home to one of the nation’s oldest domestic violence courts. The dedicated docket for criminal domestic violence cases in the former Marion Municipal Court 3 began in 1986 on a part-time basis, but quickly grew. Now, the Indianapolis court system has three full-time specialized domestic violence divisions: one hears protection order cases, and the other two handle criminal domestic violence cases.
In Two Decades of Specialized Domestic Violence Courts: A Review of the Literature (New York: Center for Court Innovation, 2009), Samantha Moore identified the typical goals of a domestic violence court as follows:
- Efficient case processing—specialized courts should be able to handle these cases in an expedited fashion, since they are the only types of cases on the docket;
- A coordinated response—by concentrating all of the cases in one court, probation officers, service providers, pretrial release coordinators, and victim advocates can deliver services without duplicating efforts or working at cross purposes, and craft policies that promote efficient case processing;
- Informed decision-making—judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have a chance to gain subject-matter expertise when they handle the same type of case on a full-time basis;
- Offender accountability—judges who oversee domestic violence dockets/courts will schedule hearings to monitor defendants’ compliance with court-ordered counseling; defendants who violate no-contact orders can be dealt with swiftly if there is a specialized docket;
- Reduced recidivism—by holding offenders accountable, specialized courts aim to reduce the incidence of repeat offenses; and,
- Victim safety and services—victim advocates can staff specialized dockets/courts and offer victims a variety of services, including safety planning, access to emergency shelter, information and referral to social services.
Social scientists have studied specialized domestic violence courts to determine their effectiveness in meeting these goals. In A National Portrait of Domestic Violence Courts, Melissa Labriola, Sarah Bradley, Chris S. O’Sullivan, Michael Rempel, and Samantha Moore synthesized a large amount of extant research exploring the courts’ impact.
Specialized domestic violence courts have been generally successful in speeding up the processing of misdemeanor domestic violence cases. They have reduced the time between case filing and disposition. There is a noticeable improvement in the work product of the staff of prosecutors’ offices, probation departments, the defense bar, and service providers when their assignment is dedicated to specialized domestic violence courts as they gain knowledge and expertise from working in a specific area. In addition, studies have shown that victims are generally more satisfied and more likely to follow up on referrals to social services if their case is heard in a specialized court rather than in a typical court setting—especially if they are able to work with a victim advocate as their case proceeds through the system.
Specialized domestic violence courts were also more likely to order special bail conditions prior to trial. The studies were inconclusive on whether specialized domestic violence courts resulted in an increase in conviction rates, with half indicating that they did and half indicating that they did not. However, the majority of studies found that when there were convictions, specialized domestic violence courts referred more defendants to batterer intervention programs and substance abuse treatment than their general jurisdiction counterparts. They also held more status hearings, used more drug testing, and sentenced defendants to probation.
Researchers cannot say whether these courts actually reduce recidivism; however, some studies have found a lower rate of rearrests for new incidents, while others have not. In the most recent study, Testing the Effects of New York’s Domestic Violence Courts, Amanda B. Cissner, Melissa Labriola, and Michael Rempel found that state’s domestic violence courts did reduce convicted offenders’ rearrest rates—especially for new domestic violence charges.