How Massachusetts Turned the Tables On Domestic Abusers


Massachusetts has finally figured out the key to domestic violence policy: make the abuser pay the price, not the victim.

The U.S. justice system might legally blame domestic abusers, but in practice, it's the victims that suffer the consequences. Obviously, the victims first bear the physical, mental, and psychological abuse, but if they decide to seek help, their options are severely limited. At home, abusers will escalate threats and violence to silence the victims, and they have few outside resources. The only real salvation is long-term shelters, which require them to give up their job, social connections, and any other link that makes them traceable. Meanwhile, the abusers themselves are free until there is enough evidence to try them, but many tactics of intimidation, like violating a restraining order, are hard to prove. When victims seek help, they must either forfeit their entire lives or face escalating violence that may very well kill them.

It's no surprise, then, that domestic violence is still such a big problem in the United States. I'll choose just one of countless facts to prove this statement: On average, 3 women and 1 man are killed by domestic violence in the U.S. every single day.

In 2005, Massachusetts decided that such a large-scale failure was not acceptable, and they changed their tactics. The new Domestic Violence High Risk Team created an algorithm that considered variables like stalking and chronic unemployment that differentiated high-risk abusers from lower-risk ones. They were then monitored more closely, and their victims were given extra security. Most importantly, the state now reserved the right to act preventively. For example, if the abuser misuses his visitation time, the state can revoke child visitation rights, make them wear a GPS tracker, or even put them in a detention facility for temporary holding even if their actions haven't yet escalated to a point warranting arrest.

The brilliance of this plan is that it uses the abuser's own logic against them: if the abuser makes an unacceptable action, the state escalates its response. In the words of Slate's Amanda Marcotte, "Now [the abuser] is the one who has to make decisions with the understanding that someone with power can further restrict his movements and his ability to live freely."

And it works. The High Risk Team's latest report states that of the 106 high-risk cases it found with its formula, only 8 were forced to enter a shelter in concern for their safety. Prior to such stringent and preventive laws, they estimate that closer to 95 of those cases would have entered shelters, simply because the law had no other way to protect them.

Of course, none of this makes Massachusetts a haven free of domestic abuse. Current legislation is still attempting to close loopholes in the laws, through increasing jail time for repeat offenders, shielding victims' names from the press, and tougher prosecution for certain acts like choking. But these efforts show that Massachusetts is a state committed to protecting its domestic abuse victims, instead of forcing them to give up their rights, and it's a model that is both effective and not particularly costly. More states should follow Massachusetts's lead and prioritize the protection of domestic violence victims, some of the weakest and most marginalized members of society.

Abusers, not victims, are always the ones in the wrong, and they, not the victims, are the ones who should pay.