The Specific Deterrent Effects of Criminal Sanctions for Intimate Partner Violence: A Meta-Analysis

Joel H. Garner, Christopher D. Maxwell, and Jina Lee | March 1, 2021

A dozen systematic reviews published since 1978 have sought to clarify the complexities of deterrence theory. These reviews emphasize the general deterrent effects of police presence, arrest, and incarceration on rates of homicide and other serious crimes, such as assault, rape, and burglary. These reviews provide less attention to specific deterrence processes and to the deterrent impacts of intermediate sanctions, such as prosecution or conviction; none of these reviews incorporate any of the research on criminal sanctions for intimate partner violence. To address these limitations, this research uses meta-analytic methods to assess the specific deterrent effects of three post-arrest criminal sanctions—prosecution, conviction, and incarceration—for one offense type—intimate partner violence. Based upon 57 studies that reported 237 tests of specific deterrence theory, the effects of sanctions varied: there is a marginal deterrent effect for prosecution, no effect for conviction, and a large escalation effect among incarcerated offenders. In addition, deterrent effects in the available research are stronger in tests that use more rigorous research designs, that measure repeat offending using victim interviews instead of official records, and that use new offenses against the same victim—not new arrests or new convictions against any victim—as the criteria for repeat offending.