The Problem: Domestic violence – the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of intimate partners or cohabiters – is a significant public health problem. Annually, intimate partner violence accounts for almost 5 million assaults or rapes of women and almost 3 million assaults or rapes of men; more than 1,500 of these incidents resulted in death in 2005. CDC Factsheet: Intimate Partner Violence. Sexual violence is a particularly common occurrence in intimate relationships. More than 10 percent of all women report being forced into sex at some time in their lives; almost 55 percent of rapes of women are committed by family members or intimate partners. CDC Factsheet: Sexual Violence.
The Law: As cultural norms have changed over the last half century, the laws and legal response to domestic violence have changed markedly. Starting in the early 1980s states began to take domestic violence much more seriously by adopting mandatory arrest laws, which require police officers arriving at domestic disturbances to issue one or more arrests, and instituting court-mandated batterer intervention programs (BIPs). These intervention programs attired to prevent repeat domestic abuse by educating the batterer – typically male – to better understand gender equality and constructive anger management. Although they vary in some key aspects, these programs are widely implemented in U.S. jurisdictions. California law, for example, sets as a condition of probation or parole for individuals convicted of domestic abuse the completion of a batterer’s program that lasts at least one year and includes two hours or more of class time per week. Cal Pen Code § 1203.097(A)(6). For other examples laws requiring BIPs, see Fla. Stat. § 741.281(Florida) and R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-29-5 (Rhode Island).
The Evidence: Feder et al. reviewed and conducted a meta-analysis of studies that assess the impact of court-mandated batterer intervention programs. Feder et al. Court-mandated interventions for individuals convicted of domestic violence. Campbell Systematic Review 2008:12. Of the 10 studies that met the authors’ inclusion criteria, 4 employed experimental designs and 6 employed quasi-experimental designs. The measures that were subject to meta-analysis were official reports of post-BIP abuse and victim reports of post-BIP abuse. Across the studies, Feder et al. found a small association between BIPs and reductions in official reports of re-battery, though they caution that some of the underlying studies have been subject to reinterpretation and methodological criticism. For example, one of the studies initially presented as evidence of the effectiveness of BIP programs was subsequently reinterpreted by its authors as showing the impact of another intervention (monitoring) rather than the BIP. For victim reported re-battery, the evidence is inconsistent and statistically insignificant. According to Feder et al., the methodological problems in studies reporting a beneficial effect of BIPs, along with the weak effects found in meta-analysis, raise significant doubts about the effectiveness of BIPs in preventing repeat domestic violence.
The Bottom Line: According to the authors of a systematic review sponsored by the Campbell Collaborative, there is not enough evidence to establish that batterer intervention programs effectively reduce recidivism.