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  • Lucy Delves

All you have to do is take a class: Is this really the solution to domestic violence?

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

When someone perpetrates domestic violence, the solution agreed upon by both parties and the court is often to send the abuser to a batterer intervention or anger management class. This is particularly true for first-time offenders and less severe cases. In jurisdictions where prosecutors are not given discretion to dismiss domestic violence cases (no-drop prosecution), there must be a remedy that serves everyone involved, and the solution often lies in court-mandated abuser intervention classes. But do these classes really have any effect?

From a prison abolitionist perspective, meaning that other alternatives to prison should be used, it is much better to have abusers develop strategies to prevent future violent behavior through their enrollment in such classes. Family members and victims of abusers often do not want to see the abuser go to jail or face the violence of the criminal legal system; they just want the violence against them to stop. Once the criminal legal system is involved, there is often no way for the victim to stop prosecution. For this reason, education is a positive alternative to jail time, or other punitive measures, and can be agreeable to all parties.

The feminist movement of the 1970s created the first legal responses to domestic violence. Since then, programs and legal actions responding to domestic violence have developed independently all over the country. Some of these developments have included mandatory arrest policies, specialized courts that handle only domestic violence and related cases, weapons bans, no-drop prosecution, orders of protection, and of course batterer intervention programs.

There are two models of batterer intervention programs, the Duluth Model and an unstructured group psychotherapy model. The Duluth Model is a feminism-based approach to domestic violence that works on dismantling patriarchal and hierarchical beliefs to understand the longstanding accepted history surrounding their behaviors. This model typically lasts six months during which abusers taking the course work to break down their concepts of power, control and gender roles.

The unstructured group psychotherapy model, or cognitive-behavioral approach, was developed by psychologists and focuses on violence as a learned behavior. The psychotherapy model uses anger management techniques and brings in lessons on attitudes towards women, mirroring the Duluth model. While both methods are criticized for ineffectiveness, the Duluth Model is criticized for lacking a science-based approach in contrast to the cognitive-behavioral approach. There is much discussion over which model is most effective.

In 1984, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence suggested batterer intervention classes as an alternative to jail or other legal remedies. Since then, there have been many analyses and meta-analyses completed on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of court-mandated batterer intervention programs. One such meta-analysis, a review of studies completed on this topic, discovered that there is not statistically significant evidence that these programs are effective. Another analysis determined that more research is needed to verify if these programs are indeed effective in deterring future violence. Analyses of this issue tend to be limited by program, location, and style, among other limitations. Most analysesshow that these classes are minimally helpful, and some studies have shown that abusers access to other abusers has an overall harmful effect. Overall, the data shows that these classes may be effective, but studies need to be updated with further research on current techniques.

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