How Prosecutors Can End Cycle Of Intimate Partner Violence

By Alissa Marque Heydari and David Sullivan | April 8, 2022, 5:21 PM EDT ·

Alissa Marque Heydari
Alissa Marque Heydari
David Sullivan
David Sullivan
It happens over and over again: a cycle of violence that prosecutors feel all but helpless to stop.

The survivor — often, but not always, a woman — calls 911 to report that her significant other has harmed her. The police respond, arrest the alleged abuser, and forward the case to the prosecutor's office.

But by the time the prosecutor calls the survivor, often within 24 hours of the incident, the survivor has already decided she does not want to move forward with the case.

Inevitably, weeks or sometimes just days later, the police are again called to the same household for the same reason.

Far too often, the only end of the cycle is death.

Victims of intimate partner violence decline to cooperate in the criminal justice system for various reasons — be it a power dynamic that is hard to break, fear of retaliation from the abuser, or a financial dependence on the abuser.

They also may not trust the legal system, or feel they are being blamed for the violence.

The reasons why some people repeatedly commit crimes against their loved ones is equally complicated.

Those who inflict violence on significant others often grew up in traumatizing homes, and witnessed or experienced family violence during their childhood.

As a result, intimate partner violence cases are among the most challenging for prosecutors. Even when a case results in a conviction, there are lingering questions about the success of the criminal process when partners reoffend and survivors are re-victimized.

With 10 million people in the U.S. reporting that they experience intimate partner violence each year, it is clear that traditional forms of prosecution are falling short in serving our communities.

Intimate partner violence cases are challenging in any jurisdiction, but prosecutors in very small and rural communities face particularly high hurdles when handling these matters. Large offices can assign a group of prosecutors to specialized units, but that is simply impractical for prosecutors' offices with only a few prosecutors on staff.

And while cities often have an abundance of services for victims to access, victims in smaller, and especially rural, areas may have to travel many miles to find medical attention and support.

Additionally, rural victims often face a unique set of challenges that lead to severe physical and personal isolation.

At the same time, smaller communities can sometimes actually be a strength.

For example, prosecutors in smaller jurisdictions can use different agencies to monitor those engaged in intimate partner violence.

One of us is the elected district attorney in the Northwestern District of Massachusetts, with a population of 240,000 people.

We created a multidisciplinary team that includes victim advocates, probation officers, and the Department of Children and Families to monitor high-risk intimate partner cases. We pool our knowledge to assess whether those accused of intimate partner violence are at high risk to repeat. 

With these issues in mind, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College recently published a guide[1] to help prosecutors in small and rural communities who are struggling with intimate partner violence cases.

The guide is inspired by conversations between prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and directly affected individuals from rural and small communities across the country who meet regularly as part of the IIP's Beyond Big Cities Initiative.[2]

The IIP's guide provides examples of successful intimate partner violence programs that elected prosecutors and other community leaders operate with limited staff and budgets.

These programs include creating family justice centers to centralize victim services, forming risk assessment task forces, and providing treatment to the accused to prevent future violence.

In some Beyond Big Cities jurisdictions, those accused of intimate partner violence are encouraged to address underlying substance use issues.

In Franklin County, Massachusetts, people incarcerated for intimate partner violence can participate in an 8-week counseling program about intimate partner violence and family trauma.

Through establishing counseling and treatment programs, prosecutors can reduce the likelihood that someone will engage in violence again.

Prosecutors in jurisdictions of all sizes can take steps today to implement changes that will help survivors.

First, prosecutors can ensure staff know how to engage with survivors in a trauma-informed way.[3]

A victim's first contact with law enforcement can have a serious emotional impact, and can determine whether a victim reports abuse or testifies in the future.

Prosecutors should work with local police officers and first responders to ensure there is proper training for victim interviews.

Second, elected prosecutors should raise awareness of intimate partner violence by speaking publicly about its impact on the community, giving a platform to advocates, and sending a message that abuse will not be tolerated.

Elected prosecutors can ensure this message is amplified by staff, who should be encouraged to volunteer for a day at a shelter for survivors of intimate partner violence.

The experiences of Beyond Big Cities members show how small offices can have a large impact on their communities through innovative prosecution.

As prosecutors, we must prioritize victim safety and support. This means working with our communities to approach intimate partner violence in new ways by facilitating access to services for survivors and exploring rehabilitative programs for offenders.

The goal is to end the cycle safely and provide a promising future for survivors.

Alissa Marque Heydari is deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York County prosecutor.

David E. Sullivan is the elected district attorney for Massachusetts' Northwestern District, which includes Hampshire and Franklin counties, and the town of Athol. Sullivan is a member of the IIP's Beyond Big Cities Initiative.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[2] The initiative is supported by the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative.

[3] Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, Trauma Informed Prosecution (2021),

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