Criminal Justice Outcomes in Intimate and Non-intimate Partner Homicide Cases

5. Discussion and Conclusion (cont'd)

Linking legislation, policy and court practices: Can it be done?

Finally, and perhaps most important, how can one explain the patterns documented in this study? One of the strengths of statistical analyses of large data sets is that researchers are able to discern patterns and relationships among a number of variables. A methodological limitation to this type of research, however, is that sufficient detail is often not available to understand why it is that those patterns exist. For instance, as already noted, while this study demonstrated that plea resolutions were more common in cases of intimate partner homicide, sufficient information was not available to document why this occurs. Similarly, there was no information on the judicial reasoning practices that may underlie sentence outcomes because Crown attorney files do not contain judicial reasons for sentence and, even if other sources were drawn upon, sentencing transcripts may not be consistently available for all cases. The lack of information on the reasoning practices that underlie criminal justice decisions, then, has been identified as one of the major shortcomings of studies on criminal justice outcomes generally (Daly, 1994; Steffensmeier et al., 1993).

Changes have occurred, though, in the way intimacy is treated within the courts and these changes appear to parallel, to some extent, the increasing concern about and awareness of intimate violence as a serious social issue. Is it possible to conclude from these results that legislative changes and/or policies implemented in the past three decades in response to these increasing concerns have made a difference in the way intimate violence is treated in the criminal justice system? Have ongoing challenges by feminists to the traditional stereotypes that surround intimacy and interpersonal violence been successful in changing the way these crimes are perceived by criminal justice actors and members of the public at large? It is usually the case, and necessarily so, that changes in or the evolution of criminal justice legislation (and all legislation in general) receives widespread political support and this is no less true for legislative and policy changes that have targeted intimate violence. However, what is also often the case is that only a small body of research, if any, seeks to assess the efficacy of such changes in addressing the problem or issue that they were meant to target (Dugan, 2003). Similarly, criminal justice policies, at least with respect to sentencing, have evolved largely independent of research in Canada and elsewhere (Roberts, 1999). And, while the gulf between research and policy may have diminished somewhat in recent decades, there is still much work to be done in assessing the impact of these and other initiatives both on changing attitudes toward intimate violence and on reducing and preventing violence generally.

At first glance, the results presented here suggest that those who may have been skeptical of the impact of legislative and policy changes on the criminal justice processing of violent crime may have been too pessimistic. However, it was not the goal of this study nor can it be concluded based on its findings that there is a direct link between the implementation of new laws and/or policies that target the treatment of intimate partner violence in criminal law and the patterns identified here. It does suggest, though, that such an association is possible and warrants further investigation. To do so, however, requires better criminal justice data than are currently available. In addition, adequate measures of the desired outcomes of programs and initiatives need to be developed. To date, limitations in crime-related data sources, and in particular court data, have precluded systematic analyses of particular trends and patterns in criminal justice. In fact, there is no national data source available that is able to link information on victim, accused, and offence characteristics to criminal justice outcomes in criminal cases. As such, much of what we know about determinants of criminal justice decision-making is based on single jurisdiction studies that focus on a limited period of time.

While this study, too, focuses on only one jurisdiction, it offers three advantages. First, the data used here provide unique information about the criminal justice process that is not readily available in Canada. For example, multiple decision points in the criminal justice system were examined from the initial charging stage to sentencing – the latter of which has been the focus of the majority of criminal justice research in this country. Second, because detailed information on the accused, the victim and the homicide incident was available for each case, it was possible to link important legal and extra-legal variables to criminal justice outcomes. Finally, patterns in criminal justice decision-making have been examined here for a period of close to three decades, providing the opportunity to compare court outcomes in distinct social and legal environments. Given that parallel changes have occurred across Canada and in other developed countries in response to intimate violence, it is possible that similar patterns or trends will be found in other Canadian and non-Canadian jurisdictions, but further investigation is required before such conclusions can be drawn

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