Domestic violence court

Specialized domestic violence courts are designed to improve victim safety and enhance defendant accountability. They emerged as a problem-solving court in the 1980s and 1990s in response to frustration among victim advocates, judges and attorneys who saw the same litigants cycling through the justice system again and again.

Background on domestic violence

The FBI estimates that a domestic violence crime is committed at a rate of once every fifteen seconds.[1] According to conservative estimates, one million women are battered by an intimate partner annually.[2] These numbers and the efforts of domestic violence advocates have led, over the last 20 years, to changes in the criminal justice response to such offenses. Some of the greatest changes occurred in the 1990s, with the passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act.

This increased attention to domestic violence resulted in, among other things, the passage of mandatory arrest laws, an increase in funding for services for victims, and the creation of special domestic violence prosecution and police units. At the same time, there was a parallel movement taking place within state court systems as judges and attorneys began to search for new tools, strategies, and new technologies that could help them address difficult cases where social, human, and legal problems collide.[3]

New York’s chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, articulated, with co-author Judge Susan Knipps, the thinking behind the development of domestic violence courts in an essay published in Western State University Law Review: “One possible judicial response to the current situation is to continue to process domestic violence cases as any other kind of case, and to continue to observe systemic failures. Another response, however—the problem solving response—is to try to design court programs that explicitly take into account the special characteristics that domestic violence cases present. If domestic violence defendants present a particular risk of future violence, then why not enhance monitoring efforts to deter such actions? If victims remain in abusive situations due to fear for their own and their children’s well being, then why not provide links to services and safety planning that may expand the choices available to them? If cases are slipping between the cracks of a fragmented criminal justice system, then why not work together to improve coordination and consistency?” [4]

Today, there are nearly 300 courts nationwide that have special processing mechanisms for domestic violence cases.[5] Three sites were the subject of a study by the Vera Institute of Justice: Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Washtenaw County, Michigan; and Dorchester District in Boston, Massachusetts. Starting in 1999, judges and attorneys, advocates for women and batterer intervention specialists, probation officers, police, and others in those jurisdictions banded together in an ambitious effort to improve criminal justice and community responses to domestic violence. The three sites were selected to participate in the Judicial Oversight Demonstration Initiative—a national demonstration project funded by the [ U.S. Department of Justice]’s Office on Violence Against Women—have spent the past five years working to enhance victim safety and the oversight of offenders in their communities.[6]

The Center for Court Innovation is funded by the Office on Violence Against Women to provide technical assistance to courts interested in developing or enhancing their domestic violence programs. The Center for Court Innovation also has a grant from the National Institute of Justice to document the number and types of domestic violence courts in the United States.

Benefits of domestic violence courts

Justice system practitioners, victim advocates, and researchers[7] have cited the following major benefits of domestic violence courts:

Concerns about domestic violence courts

Susan Keilitz notes a number of concerns about domestic violence courts. The need for judges to specialize, for instance, may lead to a loss of neutrality among judges or “the assignment of judges who are not motivated to acquire the knowledge and skills required to be effective in these cases, or to loss of judicial effectiveness from the stress of fast-paced decisionmaking in difficult and emotionally charged cases every day.” Another concern is that greater efficiency in prosecution may lead to “assembly-line justice that ignores the special needs of victims,” Keilitz wrote.[8]

Domestic violence courts in New York

In New York, the typical domestic violence court features a single presiding judge, a fixed prosecutorial team, and enhanced staffing to monitor defendant compliance and provide assistance to victims.[9] In order to ensure compliance with court orders, New York’s first domestic violence court, the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court, launched in 1996, instituted a procedure that required parolees to come back to the court for a formal review of the terms of their order of protection.[10] There are now over 35 domestic violence courts in New York, including courts in the Bronx, Queens and Westchester Counties, the city of Buffalo, and smaller cities like Clarkstown and Binghamton.[11] An impact evaluation of 24 New York domestic violence courts found reduced re-arrests among convicted offenders.[12] New York State has also created integrated domestic violence courts where a single judge handles criminal domestic violence cases and related family issues, such as custody, visitation, civil protection orders and matrimonial actions. In addition, the New York court system has three Youthful Offender Domestic Violence Courts that work with teenage defendants.[13]



  2. Judith S. Kaye and Susan K. Knipps, Judicial Responses to Domestic Violence: The Case for a Problem Solving Approach, 27 W. ST. U.L. REV. 3 (1999-2000).
  3. For more on how courts have responded to domestic violence, see"BRIDGING THEORY AND PRACTICE: A ROUNDTABLE ON COURT RESPONSES TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE" (PDF). Journal of Court Innovation.
  4. Judith S. Kaye and Susan K. Knipps, Judicial Responses to Domestic Violence: The Case for a Problem Solving Approach, 27 W. ST. U.L. REV. 3 (1999-2000).
  5. "Specialization of Domestic Violence Case Management in the Courts: A National Survey" (PDF). National Institute of Justice.
  7. See Fritzler, R.B., and Simon, L.M.J. (2000). “Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Combat in the Trenches.” Court Review, 37, 28–39; Karan, A., Keilitz, S., and Denaro, S. (1999). “Domestic Violence Courts: What Are They and How Should We Manage Them?” Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 50, 75–86; Keilitz, S., Jones, A., and Rubio, D. (2000). Specialization of Domestic Violence Case Management in the Courts: Findings From a National Survey. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts; Tsai, B. (2000). “The Trend Toward Specialized Domestic Violence Courts: Improvements on an Effective Innovation.” Fordham Law Review, 68, 1285–1327; and Winick, B. (2000). “Applying the Law Therapeutically in Domestic Violence Cases.” University of Missouri–Kansas City Law Review, 69, 1–63.
  8. "Specialization of Domestic Violence Case Management in the Courts: A National Survey" (PDF). National Institute of Justice.
  9. "What Makes a Domestic Violence Court Work? Lessons from New York" (PDF). American Bar Association’s Judges’ Journal.
  10. "Specialized Felony Domestic Violence Courts: Lessons on Implementation and Impact from the Kings County Experience" (PDF). Urban Institute.
  11. "Planning a Domestic Violence Court: The New York State Experience" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  12. "Testing the Effects of New York's Domestic Violence Courts" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  13. "Process Evaluation of the Brooklyn Youthful Offender Domestic Violence Court" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.

External links

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