What I Learned from Looking at ~100K Domestic Violence Cases in San Antonio and Bexar County
I’ve spent much of my free time for the past few months analyzing almost 100,000 domestic violence cases in Bexar County over the past 10–20 years (10 for felonies, 20+ for misdemeanors). I also read widely in the domestic violence and criminal justice research literature, consulted at least weekly — often daily, sometimes hourly— with experts, and attended several court-mandated offenders’ groups, one for men and one for women (with attendees’ permission).
Regarding the data, which was available on the court system’s website going back 10 or 20 years, I started by looking at two particular domestic violence felonies, then expanded that to five; wrote a white paper detailing my findings; and then started the process over with domestic violence misdemeanors, choosing two particularly prevalent ones to examine, and wrote a white paper about those findings also.
Roger Enriquez, J.D., associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and head of the Policy Studies Center at UTSA’s College of Public Policy, was my co-author, and we had many interesting conversations as the work progressed.
If you have had a chance to read the two white papers — and even if you haven’t — here are some things I noticed after all the work was done and observations began to gel. Feel free to consider this the TL;DR version of the white papers.
- We have a lot of repeat offenders. Disconcertingly, there seems to be no limit to how many times an offender can re-offend. Combine that with the knowledge that domestic violence is a grossly under-reported crime — national numbers suggest that easily half of domestic violence is never reported — a large number or percent of repeat offenders suggests that our problem is even bigger than we may have imagined.
- It’s unclear how well race and ethnicity is identified within the data provided by the court system, but even if it’s mostly correct, it looks like Blacks are consistently charged with offenses at a higher rate than their percentage in the population locally (7%), and whites and Hispanics are typically charged at a lower rate, or at least unevenly (sometimes higher, sometimes lower) depending on the offense. Are Blacks charged disproportionately nationally, not just locally? That would also seem to be the case.
- Are most domestic violence offenders men? Overwhelmingly, yes; but depending on the offense, as many as one-quarter of those charged are women. In most cases, though, for four of the seven offenses I reviewed, the percentage of men charged is 92.5% or above, and in the case of one felony, almost 100%.
- What age are offenders generally? It runs the gamut, and calculating age at time of offense shows a span from basically 17 through 97. Calculating average age at time of offense almost always showed an offender somewhere in his or her early 30s. There are differences in average age at time of offense by men and women, and by race and ethnicity, but those were not a focus of the current review.
5. Are domestic violence offenders spread across the city, or do some ZIP Codes predominate? That’s a tricky question, because it looks like offenders have their original ZIP Code noted at time of first contact with the judicial system, and then this ZIP Code stays tied to them in the system — even if they move subsequently once or even multiple times over the course of years. Unfortunately for 78207, though, no matter which domestic violence offense I reviewed, and whether it was for the entire range of years or just for last year in particular, repeat offenders or not, this well-known, high-hardship ZIP Code topped every list of “most offenses by ZIP Code of offender.” My suspicion is this isn’t really accurate, because the records don’t seem to ever update to reflect an offender’s subsequent moves— but it’s still a sobering reflection in its own right.
6. Domestic violence can be a hot topic, sometimes literally. After I’d completed the felony data review, I happened to hear a person-in-the-know at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (JBSA) mention at a recent Bexar County Domestic Violence Task Force meeting that their domestic violence rates are the highest of any U.S. Air Force base in the world(!) This led me to wonder what could explain both Lackland and San Antonio’s high rates, given that they draw from different populations (one national, one local). That made me think about the physical environment both groups share — specifically the heat here — “Hello, we’re living on a solar flare!” — and dug into the research literature only to find out that’s a known factor in domestic violence.
I was able to go back into the misdemeanor cases, all 67,000 of them, and identify the month when the offenses were committed— for all offenders, and separately for repeat offenders — and found the timing tracked strongly with the hottest months of the year.
7. The repeat offender issue was probably the most compelling finding, at least to me. There were a handful of felony multiple repeat offenders, with five and six domestic violence felonies apiece. As my co-author noted, those could often end up in hospital admissions for the victims; serious stuff! All these hard-core offenders had committed multiple other offenses too, whether felonies or misdemeanors, and often both.
On the misdemeanor repeat offender side, there were almost 500 multiple repeat offenders, with four, five, six, seven, eight, even nine(!) offenses. In one guy’s case, he had tallied up literally 55 misdemeanors, not all of them domestic violence — before he either died, left the county, or somehow stopped offending. I’m assuming the third choice is the most unlikely. Even removing multiple charges on the same day, the shortest amount of time he went without being re-arrested was one week.
8. We also don’t seem to convict enough offenders. Granted, I was only able to look at misdemeanor family violence cases for 2018 — so maybe something about that selection made it aberrant, including the year — but still, if last year is any indication, we seem to only convict or sentence about 2.5% of our active caseload of domestic violence offenders. This seems abnormally low on a national level, and raises the question of what damage is this low conviction or sentencing rate doing to the community? Is it recycling offenders back into the community to re-offend quickly again? Is it sending a wrong message about how seriously we take domestic violence? This topic deserves its own exploration, and a comparison of rates over a multi-year range.
9. The deeper dive into multiple repeat offenders also raised the question of “how much is enough,” or more pointedly, “how many times is enough?” If we start attaching an economic cost to each arrest for these offenders, court costs, incarceration costs and so forth — all of them borne by the taxpayer — we may get more interested in a “three strikes and you’re out” rule, such as we seem to have with drunk driving.
10. Additionally, if we think of how sparse and hard-to-find our funding is for domestic violence interventions (including education for offenders early in their life course of violence) — and contrast that with the tens of millions of dollars we are, I believe, somewhat unwittingly spending on arresting and incarcerating these offenders — individuals who don’t receive treatment, rehabilitation or education in the system, and in fact are likely to come out “worse” and potentially more dangerous than they went in — we might begin to question our priorities more closely. Would spending more on intervention lower our incarceration costs? Maybe. It’s worth exploring.
To put some $$$ to this, the infamous guy with the 55 misdemeanors — not all domestic violence, but many of them were — would have incurred an average of $3,391.30 per arrest,* and $60.06 per day** incarceration in the Bexar County jail — over the course of his career.
So, $186,521.50 for just his arrest costs; plus $3,303.30 for his incarceration costs, if we figure even one day per arrest (and of course it’s likely to be more than that). In other words, a grand total (estimate) of $189,824.80 for just the extreme low end of what his criminal career has cost taxpayers over the time he’s been active. That figure jumps to almost $200,000 if we increase the number of days jailed to just three per offense. Of course, he represents just one of the numerous repeat offenders who move through the system regularly. (And those are only some of the actual costs.)
No wonder public safety takes up the lion’s share of our local budget. But should it? It seems like it grossly outweighs what we’re spending on prevention or intervention — perhaps because we feel resigned to spending the big bucks without questioning whether it’s doing enough (or any) good, except for keeping people temporarily off the streets. And without comparing it to what intervention costs, which could turn out to be much less.
Also known as, if that’s the bad news, is there any good news? Or any glimmers of hope and positivity? And yes, there’s at least the potential for some.
Most interesting of all to me, when all was said and done, was wanting to learn more about the repeat offenders who just stopped, or were able to trail off. The ones who quit after let’s say two offenses, and did not continue to re-offend and/or escalate over time.
In the whole set of almost 100K domestic violence offenses, roughly one-third of the offenses were repeat offenses within domestic violence, and two-thirds were not. What could we proactively and intentionally learn from those offenders who did not become hard-core multiple repeat offenders? What helped them step back from their behavior, before it became a well-worn groove, and what assisted them along this path?
Ultimately, I can’t help thinking we need to know more about “what works” with this population. Far from focusing exclusively on domestic violence and its association with mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse — what do we know about how it affects and is transmitted possibly from generation to generation within local families?
To what extent is domestic violence related to a lack of conflict resolution skills (not just “anger management”) — and where does one go in the community to learn (proven, not just aspirational) better and different ways to cope with conflict? It seems hard to break out of what’s taught, caught and modeled in one’s own family — unless and until we encounter a different or better model, and have the opportunity to examine and upgrade our own relationship skills.
So, where is this taught, who is teaching it successfully , and what can we do to help spread any useful messaging — maybe focusing on male offenders who have broken free from dangerous past behavior, and have a message they can share with others in a heartfelt, authentic, non-preachy way that would bolster other men’s competence at resolving conflict well with their loved ones?
Maybe we need to suggest bringing together a core group of men who understand the problem from the inside out, but who have managed to change their ways, and can articulate to others what worked for them, and support one another on their path out of domestic violence and away from re-offending. How can we encourage men to stand up and share their stories, and encourage others to walk a different path?
* Average cost of an arrest in Bexar County was determined from a previous 2008 report and brought up to date with 2019 costs by using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
** Cost of one day’s incarceration in the Bexar County jail was obtained from a 2016 report produced by the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in a county-specific fact sheet for Bexar County, and updated using the above-referenced CPI calculator to 2019 rates.