Balancing Liberty, Dignity, and Safety: The Impact of Domestic Violence Lethality Screening

63 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2010 Last revised: 15 Mar 2011

See all articles by Margaret E. Johnson

Margaret E. Johnson

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2010


This Article undertakes the first ever analysis of the consequences of the justice and legal system’s extensive use of lethality assessment tools for women subjected to abuse. An increasing number of states are now requiring their police, prosecutors, civil attorneys, advocates, service providers, and court personnel to assess women in order to obtain a score that indicates the woman’s lethality risk because of domestic violence. The mandated danger assessment screen of all women subjected to violence focuses only on the risk of homicide and thereby limits the definition of what is domestic violence. In addition, the accompanying protocol for the screen addresses the homicide risk by directing women into particular courses of action, some of which may actually increase their risk. This Article argues that the state’s and legal system’s pervasive use of lethality assessment tools encroaches on women’s dignity unnecessarily and even detrimentally. To better address the domestic violence experienced by women, society needs to ensure that its pursuit of one goal - the reduction of homicide - does not undermine its other goals - such as the respect necessary for the woman’s dignity and autonomy. To address these concerns, this Article first suggests that there should be full transparency to both the woman subjected to abuse and legal system actors about the benefits and disadvantages of lethality assessments. Second, all administrators of lethality assessments should ensure they obtain the woman’s informed consent to conduct the screening or permit the woman to decline the screen. Third, in order to address the serious concern of coercion, risk assessment administrators should engage in woman-centered counseling, so that options for courses of action are evaluated through the lens of the woman’s objectives.

Keywords: Women, Domestic Violence, Lethality Assessment Tools, Domestic Abuse, Police, Prosecutors, Civil Attorneys, Advocates, Service Providers, Court Personnel, Risk of Homicide, Legal System, Reduction of Homicide, Concern of Coercion

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49, J12

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Margaret E., Balancing Liberty, Dignity, and Safety: The Impact of Domestic Violence Lethality Screening (November 1, 2010). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 519-580, 2010; University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-5. Available at SSRN:

Margaret E. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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