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Review Essay on the Law Enforcement Response to Spouse Abuse: Past, Present, and Future

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 1992
38 pages
This article reviews and critically assesses the role of law enforcement in spouse abuse.
After discussing definitional issues and tracing the evolution of attitudes and treatment of the physical abuse of wives, the authors examine the extent to which spouse abuse occurs. The role of law enforcement is then examined from both a historical and a theoretical perspective, and research studies of the law enforcement response are evaluated. Particular attention is given to current pro- arrest policies. The article notes that the United States has a long and inglorious tradition, inherited from its English origins, of ignoring and minimizing spouse abuse. Only recently has such behavior been regarded as "abuse," much less as a serious social problem. Males' right to chastise and abuse females is deeply rooted in America's social and legal traditions. There has been a gradual strengthening of spouse abuse laws by State legislatures, but this trend has been accompanied by a continued and pervasive reluctance of police to do more than what is absolutely declared by law. The review of current pro-arrest policies concludes that current evidence indicates that arrest for misdemeanor spouse abuse has little unique deterrent effect on the reduction of further abuse. The authors conclude that police should enforce laws applicable to spouse abuse, but policymakers should not expect that such law enforcement alone will effectively address the problem. Communities must examine not only law enforcement policies toward spouse abuse but also prosecutorial, judicial, and social services policies. The authors recommend research on the identification of differing characteristics of spouse abusers and differing patterns of spouse abuse, so that official response may take into account the nature of the abuse and the abuser. 121 references

Date Published: January 1, 1992