The hidden severity of domestic violence cases

Disturbingly high numbers of domestic violence cases are serious enough to merit felony charges, but most of these offenders will never have to face such harsh consequences


According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), an aggravated assault is defined as “an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury.” These crimes may or may not involve the use of a weapon “or other means likely to produce death or great bodily harm.”

And, as Yakima Police Department Chief Matthew Murray revealed to KNDO/ last week in a segment dedicated to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, 94% of the aggravated assaults his department encounters stem from domestic violence cases.

Northeast Yakima does have twice the rate as everybody else but if you take all the rest of the city it’s almost identical. So that crime, which is seven times bigger than the gang issue, is happening all throughout this community,” he said.

His community is certainly not alone.

While the National Institute of Justice’s Special Report on the Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research (access full report below) explains that the majority of domestic violence convictions are for simple misdemeanor assaults rather than felony aggravated assaults, these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“The percentage of felony assaults varies widely, reflecting specific state felony enhancement statutes,” the report explains. “The highest percentage of felony assault domestic violence charges documented (41%) is in California, where injurious domestic assaults are classified as felonies. However, most studies find much smaller percentages of felony assault charges -- for instance, 13.7% in Charlotte, North Carolina, and only 5.5% in Massachusetts.”

The report does go on to argue that these studies seem to match the findings of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which “found simple assaults against female intimate partners to be more than four times greater (4.4) than aggravated assaults in 2005.”

But again, these numbers can be, and most likely are, misleading, especially since they’re based on victim self-reports rather than police characterizations. (Find the full 2018 NCVS below.)

“Psychological research has demonstrated that persons, when asked about sensitive topics, may skew their responses based on how they wish to be perceived, even when their responses are anonymous,” writes psychologist Diane R. Follingstad in a book chapter entitled “The Challenges of Measuring Violence Against Women.” Based on her research, Follingstad challenges the assumption that “self-reporting is appropriate, adequate, and accurate for collecting data on IPV abuse and violence.”

So, what’s really going on here? Can the majority of these cases really be defined as simple assaults in which perpetrators “recklessly” cause bodily injury rather than the more severe, and purposeful, aggravated bodily harm?

An investigative report from Pittsburgh’s PublicSource makes a compelling argument that this is, sadly, nowhere near the reality.

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

PublicSource reviewed the 785 cases closed in 2017 by the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney Office, and what they found was startling.

“For that year,” wrote journalist Nick Keppler, “it was rare for anyone to be convicted of a felony related to domestic violence.”

And this wasn’t because the charges weren’t there; 40% of the total cases prosecuted (312) were, in fact, felony cases. But only 16% of these (51) actually ended with a felony conviction.

What happened to the rest? A whopping 53% (164) were reduced in severity to either misdemeanors or summary offenses, predominantly through plea-bargains. In fact, all but 12 of the 785 total domestic violence cases closed that year ended in a plea.

It’s impossible not to see that the path to plea deals, in even severe cases, can be made very easy,” said Todd Spivak, an attorney who works on criminal defense and matters involving protection-from-abuse [PFA] orders in Allegheny County. “It’s very rare for a defendant to face the highest charge.”

And this isn’t just an Allegheny County statistic. Studies have consistently shown that more than 90% of all criminal cases resulting in conviction are resolved through a plea deal.

“Horse trading determines who goes to jail and for how long,” a 1992 Yale Law Review article argued. “That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”

The Culprits

While the reasons for these numbers are varied, two issues are at the heart of it – district attorneys with overwhelming caseloads and uncooperative victims.

“At these hearings,” said Spivak, “assistant district attorneys are often eager to make an offer to resolve the case.”

Prosecutors in rural counties, where caseloads are far more manageable, he continued, are much likelier to continue pursuing charges than their overworked urban counterparts, particularly in cases involving reluctant victims.

As Lorraine Bittner of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh explains, “many [victims] don’t want to cooperate,” often because they “don’t trust the system” to ultimately get them the help they need.

While the adoption of “no-drop” policies in district attorneys’ offices across the country has certainly improved prosecution rates in cases where victims decline involvement, this is unfortunately not the case in Allegheny County, and the many other counties like it.

No Trust in the System

As the PublicSource report explains, “misdemeanors typically result in shorter jail sentences, if any, and spare the convicted person from bans on some jobs and government programs.”

And, while arrest alone can provide some immediate relief for victims -- arraignment judges often mandate no contact with the victim as a condition of bail -- this ultimately does little in the long term to put a stop to the abuse.

At sentencing, it’s common for prosecutors to stipulate anger management classes or intervention programs, but, again, the results of studies examining the effectiveness of such programs are largely inconclusive.

For a woman named Grace (a pseudonym to protect her identity), trusting the system is no longer an option. She’s seen her ex-husband Richard (another pseudonym) avoid significant consequences for his actions too many times, even after the violence turned towards their son.

Court documents reveal that Richard has never served more than 10 months in prison for a decades-long track record of alcohol- and drug-induced fits of violence.

Review and download the National Institute of Justice’s Special Report on the Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research:

225722 by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Access the 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey:

cv18 by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Sarah is based in North Carolina, where she lives with her son and several rambunctious reptiles. Before taking on her current role with Lexipol, she was the staff writer for the tech website DZone and served as an assistant editor with the rural lifestyle publication GRIT Magazine. Get in touch with her at