Date of Award

May 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Urban Studies

First Advisor

Tina L. Freiburger

Committee Members

Steven G. Brandl, Anne Bonds, Thomas P. LeBel, Aki Roberts


Courts, Decision-making, Discourse, Gender, Probation, Race


In domestic violence courts, judges and other court actors are often trained on one particular model of understanding domestic violence: the Duluth model of violence as power and control. There are, however, different theories and discourses about the causes and nature of domestic violence. Further, specialized domestic violence courts, which have become more prevalent since the 1990s, employ a problem-solving approach to domestic violence, focusing on offender accountability, rehabilitation, and victim safety. Whether these courts reduce violence and increase safety is less clear. Further, limited research exists on how offenders are processed through these courts, including post-sentencing decision-making. Given the high level of discretion afforded to judges at this stage of court processing, an empirical investigation of whether there is disparity across offender social location is warranted. Prior research on court processing has typically examined disparity across gender, race/ethnicity, age, and family status through employing quantitative analysis of existing agency data or secondary datasets. A smaller body of literature has qualitatively examined the processes of decision-making, interaction styles, and processing of offenders, yet it cannot speak to large-scale patterns of disparity. The purpose of this dissertation is to bridge the two approaches of examining case processing by observing probation review hearings for domestic violence cases. A population census of all hearings during an eight-month period involving some level of non-compliance was sampled. Qualitative analyses revealed that court actors commonly drew on responsibility, therapeutic beneficence, and mental health discourses regarding compliance issues, while different discourses on domestic violence were used to frame probationers’ actions. Probation agents and judges tended to command more power in influencing the social construction of probationers’ progress, and often drew upon raced, gendered, and classed assumptions related to responsibility and mental health. Quantitative analyses revealed that social location influenced sanctioning in mixed ways, with gender influencing the initial sanctioning decision, race/ethnicity influencing the length of jail sanction, and family status affecting sanctioning differently depending on the initial decision and length of jail stay. Implications regarding the use of mixed methods, and developing a theoretical framework for understanding decision-making in problem-solving courts are discussed.