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Domestic Violence Caseloads and Early Decision-Making Toolkit

Domestic Violence Caseloads and Early Decision-Making Toolkit: Considerations and Promising Practices for Effective Case Management


APA’s Domestic Violence (DV) Prosecution Committee brings together many of the nation’s leading working DV prosecutors and victim advocates to advance the field of domestic violence prosecution and address the needs of prosecutors, managers, and victim advocates as they work to meet the needs and safety concerns of victims of domestic violence. The Committee’s work is informed by the experiences of current working DV prosecutors and victim advocates, national experts, and allied partners. 

The purpose of this toolkit is to provide domestic violence prosecutors with guidance and model practices for addressing case backlogs and challenges specific to early decision-making and screening of DV cases. Today, many prosecutors’ offices are understaffed, under-resourced, and are impacted by the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. APA, through its Domestic Violence Prosecution Committee, developed this resource to assist prosecutors in their efforts to build sustainable, data-informed early decision-making and screening practices for DV-related offenses.

There are no easy or one-size-fits-all answers for effective domestic violence response. DV is complex, and along with the difficulties inherent in prosecuting DV, implementing meaningful changes requires prosecutors with the skills and training to make good judgements and exercise discretion when assessing each DV case. To improve DV prosecution, this toolkit provides guidance, considerations, and examples from the field, including potential tools for screening DV-related offenses, suggestions for a DV unit structure, and methods for managing cases.

Make important decisions to allocate limited resources

As resources in prosecutors’ offices are often limited, decisions must be made about where to focus resources to prioritize victim safety while simultaneously increasing case efficacy. Depending on factors such as available resources, needs of the office and of the community, these practices can be implemented to enhance the efficacy of a domestic violence unit. While these practices can all be useful, offices do not need to have all the following structure or design to have an effective domestic violence unit

a. Domestic Violence Unit Structure: In order to have an effective response to domestic violence in your community, the chief prosecutor, management, DV unit supervisor, attorney members, victim advocates, investigators, and support staff should together create a shared vision, goals, and measurements for success. Prioritizing domestic violence is critical as it is often at the intersection of other crimes, as those who are exposed to violence are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.1, 2

  • Dedicated Domestic Violence Unit:

Where office resources allow, a dedicated DV unit with vertical prosecution provides specialized prosecution teams that are experienced with the unique considerations and complexities associated with intimate partner violence. Additionally, resources can be bolstered by designating and supporting topical experts amongst unit prosecutors to provide expertise as needed (i.e. stalking, human trafficking, sexual assault, child victims, strangulation).

A critical part of developing an effective domestic violence response is creating informed and appropriate policies and protocols. All those assigned to a DV unit should receive specialized training and work with a multi-disciplinary team of prosecutors, investigators, administrative staff, and advocates designed to minimize victim trauma and prioritize cases.

As resources permit, critical training topics include (but are not limited to):

    • Relevant office policies and practices 
    • Dynamics of intimate partner violence and use of power & control
    • Lethality and high-risk indicators
    • Neurobiology and impact of trauma
    • Trauma-informed response techniques
    • Culturally competent response 
    • Discoverable evidence including Brady obligations
    • Child witnesses
    • The role of drugs and alcohol
    • Recantation
    • Cycle of Domestic Violence
  • A Victim Services Unit with personnel dedicated to serving domestic violence victims can provide services, for example:
    • Dedicated victim support and referrals to resources
    • Crisis intervention
    • Criminal justice accompaniment 
    • Safety planning
    • Orders of protection
    • Liaison/Point-of-Contact for victims

Additional resources and design can include: 

  1. Paralegals, interns or law students, or case development specialists who can provide assistance with certain tasks to free up prosecutors’ time. These roles can include:
    • Monitoring jail calls and body worn camera footage and taking appropriate response to discovered jail calls

Technology to Process Jail Calls: Implement data search and analytics technology that continuously monitors jail calls in real time.

      • Providing assistance with cases
      • Providing research assistance 
      • Collecting and analyzing data 
      • Conducting light investigative work 
      • Identifying and organizing restitution
  1. Use of technology to bolster cases: Cases can be bolstered by the use of technology including digital evidence, high quality pictures of injuries. Some offices may have the capacity to establish technology units for analyzing evidence and some may designate an individual to assist in establishing a strong partnership with state police, local LE forensic teams or FBI (when appropriate). 

An example of an effective technology unit is the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office High Tech Analysis Unit forensic team which helps resolve cases. After the attorneys have obtained search warrants, the unit searches electronic devices and analyzes the device(s) to extract data in a searchable format

b. Administration

Based upon the shared mission, vision and goals, it is critical to determine resources and infrastructure for effective case flow for both your office and working with other system actors including police, advocates, courts, and the defense. Developing policies and practices on domestic violence case administration and ensuring that all understand helps with cases efficiency and efficacy. Administrative processes include evidence processing, collaboration with advocates, efficient handling of information, with defense attorneys, police, and case flow processes.

c. Collaboration with External Partners

In addition to internal resource allocation, offices can consider collaborating with external partners to gather information, to ensure domestic violence defendants are adhering to case involved obligations to include bond/bail, protection orders, contact restrictions, attending required classes, and to enforce applicable firearms conditions to ensure victim safety. External partnerships can also support victims and provide safety. 

  • Court ordered compliance programs help ensure that individuals are adhering to orders including pre-trial release, restraining orders [both ex parte and permanent], stalking orders, and conditions of probation. These compliance programs should report back to the court to keep the judge abreast of the defendant’s progress and compliance, or lack thereof.3 Partnerships can include, for example pre-trial services, probation officers, law enforcement, and community-based service providers.
  • Domestic violence firearms enforcement/dispossession teams can quickly and proactively assist with the service of protection orders, immediate removal of firearms based on those orders, and hold those accountable who fail to comply with or who otherwise possess firearms unlawfully.4 They can also link gun crimes throughout the county to domestic violence offenders. Partners can include the courts, law enforcement, community-based advocates, and legal aid.
  • Victim-centered community coordinated response can lead to a higher likelihood of safety and successful outcomes by meeting the needs of victims and increasing system efficiencies and capacity.Collaborative partnerships will vary given differences in jurisdiction size, resources, and population. Some jurisdictions have family justice centers or other co-located services with close working relationships that provide comprehensive and coordinated support to victims and help them navigate the process of seeking help.

One example of such co-located services is the Sojourner Family Peace Center located in Milwaukee, WI. This center is a comprehensive nonprofit provider of domestic violence prevention and intervention services to include an emergency shelter, case management, children’s programming, support groups, systems advocacy and a 24-hour hotline. These support services work to ensure the safety of survivors of family violence and provide a pathway out of violence for victims and families.

While not every jurisdiction has a family justice center, prosecutors are encouraged to partner with community organizations, formally or informally, to address the multiple needs of victims. Partner organizations may include DV advocacy organizations, law enforcement, shelters, universities, hospitals, social workers, medical examiners, legal aid lawyers.

If your jurisdiction has a family justice center, a close relationship can enhance your office’s victim/witness advocates and DV prosecutors’ ability to connect victims with social services and support.5


1 Women charged with a crime are overwhelmingly survivors of gender-based violence. Multiple studies indicate that between 71% and 95% of incarcerated women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. Many have experienced multiple forms of physical and sexual abuse in childhood and as adults. “Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor in Incarceration”, Dichter & Osthoff, VAWnet, 2015. Depending on the study, 60-98% of incarcerated women reported histories of physical or sexual violence (see: Schlesinger and Lawston 2011:2, Beck et al 2013: Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates). This is in comparison to 43% of women in the general population who report experiencing physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives (Schlesinger and Lawston 2011:2).

2 Children exposed to violence are more likely to engage in criminal behavior as adults: NIJ Why Researching Children’s Exposure to Violence is Important Children Exposed to Violence | National Institute of Justice (

3 The Center for Court Innovation has a Guidebook for the Courts that has detailed information about DV compliance programs integrated into the criminal proceedings.

4 See for example King County DV Firearms Enforcement Team (

5  “The family justice center is, at its core, a concept that increases community capacity while also providing diverse, culturally competent services to victims and their children from a single location. It is common sense that such an approach, if executed properly, will provide greater assistance to those in need.” Mary Buchanan, former Acting Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, The President’s Family Justice Center Initiative Best Practices,

Offices should prioritize the screening of DV-specific crimes and other crimes that directly impact the safety and security of an individual or the community. As such, the following analysis, to include but not limited to the below listed variables, can be a useful guide to be followed upon receipt of a case for screening and consideration of case issuance.

  1. The type and/or nature of the offense including any aggravating and mitigating circumstances or evidence.  
  2. If, following an analysis by the screening individual of the below listed (but not limited to) variables the screening individual determines that the case should receive priority consideration then promptly contact your immediate supervision to seek, and if appropriate, receive approval to screen the case as a priority matter and issue the appropriate charges.     
  3. Victim input and impact relative to the offense and the status of the case.
  4. Risk of lethality.
  5. Risk of recidivism, against a specific victim or the community. If available, review a static or static/dynamic validated risk assessment tool.
  6. Criminal History including the nature or types of convictions (and specifically, DV history of all parties, including orders of protection).
  7. Pending Cases including the nature and types of offenses.
  8. Compliance with orders of protection, prior diversion programs, court orders, and/or conditions of release.
  9. Diversion considerations and eligibility if appropriate (see Tab 3 for further consideration).

When screening/reviewing any case, including crimes against persons cases, that has been submitted to the office for consideration of issuance of a formal charge the following guidelines can be followed.

  1. Offices should develop an appropriate standard of proof for analysis of the prosecution of cases. An example would be that all evidence, taken together, is such that in the screener’s judgment would warrant a conviction.  
    1. If, in reviewing the submitted material by a law enforcement (or other) agency, the above standard is not met then the reviewing individual should use their professional judgment to do the following.
      1. Make contact with the victim(s) to discuss the status of the case and receive their input and the impact of the matter including your review analysis.
      2. If the case as a whole continues to not meet the above standard, then consider rejecting the case using the appropriate summary remark “insufficient evidence as a whole,” “victim(s) unable or unwilling to participate” or choose different or more accurate reason that relates to your rejection analysis.
    2.  There are occasions where the submitted case investigation is not ready to be issued. Where questions remain for the submitting officer/agency, return the case to the submitting officer/agency and ask that following the review and answering of those questions that the case should be resubmitted for further review. In instances where the case is unable to proceed, services and referrals should be offered to the victim.

Prosecutors’ offices throughout the country are facing burgeoning backlogs, with limited resources, staffing and funding constraints impacting their ability to fully address these issues. Given these considerations, case prioritization becomes paramount. Deciding which cases to prioritize and how varies by jurisdiction. Below are considerations and promising practices being implemented by prosecutors’ offices throughout the country.

  1. Reliance on experienced prosecutors who understand the dynamics and complexities of domestic violence to review cases and make screening decisions.
    Experienced domestic violence prosecutors are critical to the DV case screening and prioritization process. Their experience allows them to best assess future dangerousness and/or lethality of the defendant to the victim based on their review of facts of the case, prior history between parties, and defendant’s criminal history among other factors. Criteria for prioritizing cases can include: 
    • Offense severity
    • Child(ren) in the home
    • Victim input
    • Defendant’s criminal history to include but not limited to:
      • Stalking
      • Strangulation
      • Protection orders & compliance (including applications for orders of protection)
      • Child abuse
      • Animal abuse
    • Escalating violence in recent past 
    • Defendant’s access to firearms6
    • Defendant’s threats to injure/kill victim(s)
    • Defendant’s threats to injure/kill self
    • Status of the relationship (if separating, leaving an abuser can be a dangerous time)7
    • Vulnerability of the victim (mental or physical capacity or age)     

    Offices can also consider a weighted case load/backlog analysis based upon case prioritization by utilizing a case management system. Case management systems can contribute to more effective case management and reduce case timelines and backlogs.

  2. Diversion
    Acknowledging the complexity of domestic violence prosecution, DV diversion programs, when properly designed and resourced, can bolster victim safety, prevent recidivism, address the root causes of violence to disrupt the cycle of violence, and create safer communities.While diversion programs target a smaller subset of overall DV cases, a prosecutor-led diversion program leading to early resolution can be an important tool to expedite case dispositions to quickly respond to the victim’s needs and safety, save limited criminal justice system resources, and produce better outcomes than are available through standard case processing.
  3. Consider using lethality assessments to make early screening decisions using lethality assessments to make early screening decisions
    Domestic violence specific lethality and risk assessment are overlapping concepts but measure different things. The key difference is that risk assessment tools measure the risk of recidivism—that abuse will occur again—while lethality tool measures the risk of homicide the defendant presents to the intimate partner.8 These assessment tools can assist DV screeners to prioritize cases based on degree of risk and/or lethality a defendant presents.

Prince George’s County, MD—Supervisor-led High Risk/High Lethality Protocol: 

Collaborative review team: Special Victims Unit (SVU) Supervisors review every single intimate partner violence charge (misdemeanor or felony) that comes into the office. Cases are reviewed for facts of the case; prior history between parties; prior defendant’s history, and then SVU makes bond recommendations. 

High lethality is determined based on whether the case involves strangulation; assault involving a weapon; or Defendant with three or more prior domestic violence cases. High risk is determined by whether the defendant has: multiple pending cases simultaneously, any violations of bond conditions (depending on the type of violation), pressured the victim to recant, or it is a serious stalking cases (when the defendant has attached GPS to the car, etc.). High lethality/risk is noted at intake and in the case management system. The State recommends no bond unless there are circumstances that warrant release to pre-trial electronic monitoring. Victim/Witness Coordinator reaches out and connects to services within 48 hours. High lethality or high-risk cases cannot be dropped without supervisor approval. Supervisors review these cases bi-weekly. 

This protocol resulted in Prince George’s County going without a single intimate partner violence homicide – while overall homicide and family violence homicides increased almost to double between October 2020 – May 2021.


6  A study of the Danger Assessment tool revealed that women who were threatened or assaulted with a gun or other weapon were twenty (20) times more likely than other women to be murdered (Campbell et al., 2003b). In an earlier study, Saltzman et al. (1992) found that “Family and intimate assaults involving firearms are twelve (12) times more likely to result in death than non-firearm-related assaults.” (Intimate Partner Homicide Prevention, High Lethality Risk Factors,

7  “Abusers repeatedly go to extremes to prevent the victim from leaving. In fact, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence.” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

8 Branco & Keene, Intimate Partner Homicide Prevention, Tools & Strategies for Assessing Danger or Risk of Lethality, Jan. 1, 2016,

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