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Victim Satisfaction With the Criminal Justice System

National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
January 1, 2006

New research suggests that victims of domestic violence who initially turn to the criminal justice system for intervention may be so dissatisfied with the outcome that they do not call the police the next time they need help.

Researchers Eve Buzawa and the late Gerald Hotaling asked women in 353 domestic violence cases in the Quincy District Court (QDC) in Quincy, Massachusetts, to assess the role of the police, prosecutors, victim advocates, and judges and to rate their level of satisfaction.[1] They found that in 55 percent of the cases, women were generally satisfied with the outcome. In 17 percent, victims were dissatisfied.

The researchers found several common variables in the satisfied cases: the incidents were less serious, the person who committed the offense was less dangerous, the victim said she felt some control and wanted the case to go forward, and the victim reported experiencing less violence in her past.

Dissatisfied victims appeared to have been involved in more serious incidents with highly dangerous individuals and were more likely to have disagreed with the police about the arrest of the person committing the crime. These victims were also 16 times more likely than satisfied victims to report that they had experienced both sexual and severe physical abuse before the age of 18. As a group, dissatisfied victims appeared to be more willing to leave the person who committed the offense or unwilling (or afraid) to directly confront the person, even if they were separated.

For the researchers, the bottom line was that victim satisfaction in domestic violence cases appeared to hinge on the extent to which the victim felt control over ending the violence in the incident, control over the future conduct of the person committing the crime against her — and even over the criminal justice system. When the victim had a low sense of control, satisfaction with the system decreased significantly.

Consequences of Victim Dissatisfaction

Having identified the common variables in cases of satisfied and dissatisfied victims, Buzawa and Hotaling then examined what, if any, consequences flowed from dissatisfaction. The second stage of the study focused on the connection between victim dissatisfaction and willingness to report future victimizations. The researchers tracked 118 women for a year after the original study to see if they reported any new incidents or sought civil restraining orders.

Of the 118 women, 49 percent admitted that they had been revictimized. Of these, 22 percent reported the incidents to the police. Contrary to the presumption that “more serious” offenses get reported to the police, victims who reported the new incident were more likely to report less serious offenses, like violations of restraining orders, than they were to reach out for assistance due to a physical assault. Women who reported new abuse to the police also generally reported that the abuse was becoming more serious.

Women who chose not to report new incidents of abuse were:

  • The least likely to have resisted the arrest of the individual committing the crime during the first incident.
  • The least likely to have been dissatisfied with how the police initially handled the incident.
  • The most likely, by the conclusion of the case, to feel that the actions of the police negatively affected their safety and to complain that they wanted the prosecutor to make charges against the person who committed the offense more severe.

Women who chose not to report new incidents of abuse also were likely to have experienced sexual abuse as a child. This finding coincides with other research that suggests a link between a woman’s history of abuse and her likelihood of reporting revictimization to police. The researchers theorize that “for an individual who has experienced abuse through the ‘life course,’ reporting this latest incident to the police may be viewed as a useless ritualism.”[2]


In the past, victims of domestic violence often expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of aggressive response to domestic assault by police, prosecutors, and the courts. Now, researchers have discovered, the pendulum may have swung the other way.

Mandatory arrest policies in many jurisdictions and implementation of “full enforcement” protocols have resulted in more cases being prosecuted whether the victim wants to proceed or not.

Women who are the victims of domestic abuse usually want to enhance their own safety, maintain economic viability, protect their children, and have an opportunity to force an individual to participate in batterers’ counseling programs. They are less concerned about upholding the law or deterring future abuse—the main objectives of the police, prosecutor, and judge.

Victim Services Increase Positive Experiences

Women who take advantage of victim service programs tend to have more positive outcomes and are more likely to report satisfaction, according to one study.[3] Researchers found that women benefit the most when the criminal justice system and nonprofit and community-based agencies collaborate and coordinate their efforts. Such cooperation results in more positive outcomes and greater victim satisfaction. Treating victims with respect, offering them positive encouragement, refraining from engaging in negative interactions, and most importantly, creating a sense of control increased the odds of positive outcomes in the victim’s view.

Researchers concluded that the most positive outcomes occur when the staff at service agencies listen to women, carefully explain the options, and then take action. “Women know best about their own safety and well-being, and when they have a greater sense of control while working with agencies, they find the services more helpful and effective.”[4]

Ensuring that victim service programs work in conjunction with the legal system and community agencies and that staff address victims’ needs in a positive manner will encourage victims to turn to the criminal justice system for assistance and may maximize the potential to break the cycle of violence.

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 253, January 2006.

This article is based on three final grant reports submitted to NIJ:
Victim Satisfaction With Criminal Justice Case Processing in a Model Court Setting, by Gerald T. Hotaling and Eve S. Buzawa, grant number 00–WT–VX–0019, (NCJ 195668).

Forgoing Criminal Justice Assistance: The Non-Reporting of New Incidents of Abuse in a Court Sample of Domestic Violence Victims, by Gerald T. Hotaling and Eve S. Buzawa, grant number 00–WT–VX–0019, (NCJ 195667).

Effects on Victims of Victim Service Programs Funded by the STOP Formula Grants Program, by Janine Zweig, Martha R. Burt, and Ashley Van Ness, grant number 99–WT–VX–0010, (NCJ 202903).

Date Published: January 1, 2006