Randomized controlled study found that a new "hybrid" intervention grounded in principles of restorative justice can be strikingly effective.

Treatment for Domestic Violence

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers found that when people convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime were randomly assigned to an intervention that included a component informed by restorative justice, called Circles of Peace, arrests were reduced by 53% over a two-year period. Results also show that of total arrests made, the severity of the crimes, of any type, was reduced by half as well.

The findings upend a well-established convention of sending everyone convicted of domestic violence crimes to the same batterer treatment programs that have been shown to have minimal effect. The findings also suggest a cultural shift is necessary to consider alternative approaches to treatment, including one that involves victims in treatment, should they choose to participate.

The results of the randomized controlled trial were published today (Sept. 24) in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour. The researchers worked closely with the Salt Lake City judiciary and a local social service agency to carry out their groundbreaking research. They compared a typical batterers program with a new hybrid intervention that includes a restorative justice component, as well as willing victims who choose to participate in the treatment. Restorative justice seeks to repair the harm, on the theory that justice can heal.

The study was conducted by Linda G. Mills, professor of social work, public policy, and law at New York University and executive director of NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery; Briana Barocas, research associate professor, Silver School of Social Work at NYU and director of research, NYU Center on Violence and Recovery; Robert P. Butters, assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Utah; and Barak Ariel, fellow and lecturer, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, and senior lecturer, Institute of Criminology, Hebrew University.

“I have long believed that we could change the course of the enormous and widespread problem of domestic violence crime by using existing science to think more imaginatively about how to interrupt cycles of violence, and by developing new treatments that challenge the preconceived notion that all people arrested for domestic violence crimes are untreatable,” Mills said.

“Adding restorative justice elements to a typical batterers’ treatment for people convicted of domestic violence crimes, and thereby taking a more holistic approach that can also incorporate willing victims, might actually have the potential to interrupt the vicious cycle of abuse,” Mills added. “With millions of people in this country being arrested for domestic violence crimes each year – and given the devastating impact on victim, families and communities – our study provides promising results that indicate that treatment which includes restorative justice practices can in fact change its course. The courage to alter our response will turn, not on the research which is now convincing, but rather on throwing out preconceived notions about whether we believe that people can change, especially if we provide them with the tools to do so.”

It is estimated there are 2,500 batterers treatment programs operating in the U.S., where 21 percent of all violent crime between 2003 and 2012 involved domestic violence. While there are no reliable statistics, it is believed that nearly 3 million people are treated each year after being arrested and convicted of a domestic violence crime.

Although domestic violence treatment programs use a variety of treatment methods, most programs rely on an approach called Batterers Intervention. Developed in Duluth, Minnesota, Batterer Intervention Programs use psycho-educational techniques to hold those convicted of domestic violence crimes accountable. The program was introduced in the early 1980s and focuses on changing attitudes and behaviors associated with gender imbalances and the accompanying power and control dynamic in abusive heterosexual relationships. It was designed for male offenders and female victims. For the most part, studies have shown that Batterers Intervention Programs have minimal effect on reducing violent recidivism after treatment. However, one four-year longitudinal study found a more significant reduction in abuse over time.

Only one other rigorous study – by Mills, Barocas, and Ariel – has focused on using restorative justice for domestic violence crimes in the U.S. The 2013 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, showed that those who participated in a restorative justice-focused treatment experienced less recidivism than those who participated in traditional batterers treatment. This Nogales, Arizona, study did not produce statistically significant differences between the two treatments except for non-domestic violence arrests at one time period – 12 months after the study was begun. Still, the study provided another major contribution to the literature. It found that willing victims could participate in treatment with their offenders without experiencing additional harm, a concern that had been raised for many years and stood in the way of reforms. Most states in the U.S. still prohibit victims from participating in treatment with their offenders.

Restorative justice is dialogue-based, not didactic, and seeks to address the social harms caused by crime. Restorative justice takes many forms, including circles or conferences, but is designed to address the particular crime that has occurred. Circles of Peace, always include a Circle Keeper (trained facilitator), the offender, other family members or friends who willingly participate, and a trained volunteer community member. Victims only participate if state law permits, if they pass a safety assessment, and after having the process explained to them. Because restorative justice circles are tailor-made to the particular person convicted of a domestic violence crime, they can accommodate a range of personal and familial characteristics and factors that would be otherwise ignored or neglected in a group or classroom setting such as Batterers Intervention. Thus, Circles can address a variety of domestic violence cases that find their way into the criminal justice system, including intimate partner and family/roommate violence cases.

Previous studies of restorative justice show that it is highly cost effective in reducing the frequency of repeat offending in several different crimes other than domestic violence. For years, critics have suggested that restorative justice should not be applied to domestic violence cases out of concern for the victim’s safety which, they believe, could be jeopardized due to their participation. Many of these advocates believe that victims of domestic violence crimes can never “willingly” agree to participate. Importantly, the Arizona study confirmed that restorative justice programs could be used safely, and that many victims want to participate in treatment with the person convicted of domestic violence; in that study, 62% of victims participated in treatment.

Professor Robert P. Butters helped lead the research team in Salt Lake City, where the newly released study was conducted. “We were excited to test whether a treatment program that included a restorative justice component would be more effective,” Butters said. “We thought that since most treatment programs in the country use Batterers Intervention or a version of it, that adding a restorative justice element would be more palatable to service providers who have resisted change in the past. We are delighted that these results show great potential for this hybrid approach.”

Professor Briana Barocas said, “Given the concerns raised by advocates regarding victim participation in domestic violence treatment across the U.S. and the world, we wanted to test a treatment that would combine some period of batterers’ treatment with a restorative justice informed approach.”

Professor Barak Ariel commented, “We were pleased to learn that this hybrid model was so effective that it reduced subsequent crimes in half and of those crimes committed, that their severity was similarly reduced.”