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Policy to protect domestic violence victims may be killing them

March 3, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Cambridge
and World Science staff

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims whose part­ners are ar­rested in mis­de­mean­or cases ap­pear far more likely to die early than those whose part­ners aren’t ar­rested, a new study finds.

The prem­a­ture deaths are through ill­ness rath­er than vi­o­lence, the re­sults in­di­cate. The re­search­ers called the find­ings a “med­i­cal mys­tery,” adding that it seems that man­da­to­ry-ar­rest poli­cies meant to pro­tect wom­en may be some­how harm­ing them in­stead. 

Such poli­cies are on the books in most U.S. states and the U.K.

“It re­mains to be seen wheth­er democ­ra­cies can ac­cept these facts as they are, rath­er than as we might wish them to be,” added Law­rence Sher­man from Cam­bridge Uni­vers­ity in the U.K., who au­thored the study with col­league Heath­er M. Har­ris from Uni­vers­ity of Mar­y­land.

“These dif­fer­ences are too large to be due to chance,” Sher­man said, and “too large to be ig­nored.”

The study was based on an ex­pe­ri­ment 23 years ago in Mil­wau­kee, Wisc., in which some of­fend­ers in mis­de­mean­or cases were ar­rested while oth­ers were only warned, at ran­dom. The new anal­y­sis found that vic­tims whose part­ners were ar­rested – mostly with­out caus­ing in­ju­ry – were 64 per­cent more likely to have died ear­ly.

The ef­fect was by far strongest for African-American vic­tims, for whom the ar­rest was linked to al­most dou­bled mor­tal­ity, the study found. For whites, on the oth­er hand, the in­crease was found to be only 9 per­cent.

The au­thors said the causes are un­known but the ef­fects are con­sist­ent with chron­ic stress poss­ibly am­pli­fied by part­ner ar­rest. They call for a “ro­bust re­view” of U.S. and U.K. man­da­to­ry ar­rest poli­cies in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases.

The find­ings are to be pre­sented March 5 in Lon­don at the win­ter meet­ing of the So­ci­e­ty of Evidence-Based Polic­ing. Mil­wau­kee Po­lice Chief Ed­ward Flynn, who sup­ported the fol­low-up stu­dy, will join in the pre­s­enta­t­ion and dis­cus­sion. The study is to be pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Crim­i­nol­o­gy.

The vast ma­jor­ity of vic­tim deaths fol­low­ing the Mil­wau­kee Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Ex­pe­ri­ment were not mur­ders, ac­ci­dents or sui­cides. The vic­tims died from com­mon causes of death such as heart dis­ease, can­cer and oth­er in­ter­nal ill­nesses, the study found.

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

The orig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ment took place be­tween 1987 and 1988, with sup­port from the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment. It en­rolled 1,125 vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence whose av­er­age age was 30 years. Each case was the sub­ject of an equal prob­a­bil­ity ‘lot­tery’ of ran­dom as­sign­ment. Two-thirds of the sus­pects were ar­rested with im­me­di­ate jail­ing. One-third re­ceived a warn­ing at the scene with no ar­rest. In 2012-13, Sher­man and Har­ris searched state and na­t­ional rec­ords for the names of eve­ry one of the vic­tims.

The rec­ord search showed that a to­tal of 91 vic­tims had died. Of these, 70 had been in the group whose part­ners were ar­rested, com­pared to 21 whose part­ners had been warned. This trans­lated in­to 93 deaths per 1,000 vic­tims in the ar­rest group, ver­sus 57 deaths per 1000 in the warn­ing group. For the 791 black vic­tims (who were 70 per­cent of the sam­ple), the rates were 98 per 1,000 for ar­rest, ver­sus 50 per 1,000 for the warned group.


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Domestic violence victims whose partners are arrested in misdemeanor cases appear far more likely to die early than those whose partners aren’t arrested, a new study finds. The premature deaths are through illness rather than violence, the results indicate. The researchers called the findings a “medical mystery,” adding that it seems that mandatory-arrest policies meant to protect women may be somehow harming them instead. Such policies are on the books in most U.S. states and the U.K. “It remains to be seen whether democracies can accept these facts as they are, rather than as we might wish them to be,” added Lawrence Sherman from Cambridge University in the U.K., who authored the study with colleague Heather M. Harris from University of Maryland. “These differences are too large to be due to chance,” Sherman said, and “too large to be ignored.” The study was based on an experiment 23 years ago, called the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment, in which some offenders in misdemeanor cases were arrested while others were only warned, at random. The analysis found that victims whose partners were arrested – mostly without causing injury – were 64% more likely to have died early. The effect was by far the strongest for African-American victims, for whom the arrest was linked to almost doubled mortality, the study found. For whites, on the other hand, the increase was found to be only 9%. The authors say that causes are unknown but such effects are consistent with chronic stress that could have been amplified by partner arrest. They call for a “robust review” of U.S. and U.K. mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases. The findings are to be presented March 5 in London at the winter meeting of the Society of Evidence-Based Policing. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who supported the follow-up study, will join in the presentation and discussion of the results. The study are to be published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology. The vast majority of victim deaths following the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment were not murders, accidents or suicides. The victims died from common causes of death such as heart disease, cancer and other internal illnesses, the study found. Previous studies have shown post-traumatic stress symptoms to be prevalent in victims of domestic violence, and that low but chronic symptoms of this nature have been linked to premature death from coronary heart disease and other health problems. The original experiment took place between 1987 and 1988, with support from the U.S. Justice Department. It enrolled 1,125 victims of domestic violence whose average age was 30 years. Each case was the subject of an equal probability ‘lottery’ of random assignment. Two-thirds of the suspects were arrested with immediate jailing. One-third received a warning at the scene with no arrest. In 2012-13, Sherman and Harris searched state and national records for the names of every one of the victims. The record search showed that a total of 91 victims had died. Of these, 70 had been in the group whose partners were arrested, compared to 21 whose partners had been warned. This translated into 93 deaths per 1,000 victims in the arrest group, versus 57 deaths per 1000 in the warning group. For the 791 black victims (who were 70% of the sample), the rates were 98 per 1,000 for arrest, versus 50 per 1,000 for the warned group.