Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By Emma Williamson
"Evidence suggests harsher punishments and criminal sanctions do not reduce further offending"
Since embarking on the Feel Better Project I’ve acknowledged that finding a singular course of action to reduce domestic abuse comes with some insurmountable challenges and the right approach is a murky pursuit at best. Not only is funding and support for organisations limited but on top of that emotions run high.
These are our families we are talking about - This is not random abuse by strangers to random victims, these are our loved ones, our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. When we consider the high number of victims of domestic abuse, the likelihood is we know someone who has experienced it. Like I said, emotions run high.
However does that mean we can’t find in ourselves the ability to take a step back and find a logical approach? Not completely remove emotion because we still need to empathise and care. However, could we research, plan and maybe find a means to reduce this abuse that is worth investing in?
With those questions in mind I came across a report by Transform Justice, an organisation who aim to “help create a better justice system in the UK, a system which is fairer, more open, more humane and more effective". Their illuminating report “Love, fear and control — Does the criminal justice system reduce domestic abuse?” truly opened my eyes.
The report highlights some of the weaknesses of the current UK government approach, which historically has greatest emphasis on dealing with domestic abuse within the criminal justice system and the new Domestic Abuse draft bill simply doubles down on this thinking.
Let’s consider what we know so far. 1 in 5 domestic abuse incidents are reported to the police. Of the nearly 2 million instances of abuse that happen annually, less than 5% of those are put forward to the Crown Prosecution Services to pursue a conviction and that percentage is declining. On top of that, as the report highlights and evidence suggests harsher punishments and criminal sanctions do not reduce further offending amongst abusers and there is a strong case that it actually increases offending. Also without catered rehabilitation, even if we safeguard the original victim, there will still be an offender likely to abuse in the future with a new partner or loved one.
If I’m honest, I think the real reason we focus on the criminal prosecutions both societally and in government is the terrifying fact that two women per week die at the hands of a current or former partner. Emotions Run High. This figure alone is why I became involved in the Feel Better Project. I was indignant, maybe even angry, however as I dug deeper and researched more, I acknowledged that this is a devastating consequence of deeply rooted societal problem and it needs more than the band aid of throwing people in prison. We need prevention, we need rehabilitation, we need better mental health, we need safe spaces for both victim and abuser to come forward, we need planning not just reactions. As the report recounts:
“Some abusers need to be imprisoned to protect current and future victims. But we cannot lock up every abuser and throw away the key. We need to stop throwing money at “solutions”, like short prison sentences, court fines and ASBO-like orders, which don’t reduce abuse, and focus instead on supporting victims and on behaviour change. Behaviour change takes time, skilled facilitators and the best of evidence of what approaches work. If we focus on getting that right, we’ll save a generation of victims – partners, family members and children - from abuse.”
I couldn’t sum it up better and I would highly recommend reading the report. It will challenge your perspectives and assumptions as it challenged mine and if you don’t have the time for that, take 2 minutes and read their evidenced, recommendations below. They are balanced, based on long term thinking and provide much of the framework for what we support at the Feel Better Project.
Look at existing and new approaches and programmes, including restorative justice.
Pause any moves to make criminal sentences harsher, given evidence that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse and more punitive sanctions may make behaviour worse.
Reform and revive specialist domestic abuse courts for those cases where prosecution is clearly in the public and victim’s interest
Where cases are referred for prosecution, work out what support victims most need to prevent cases collapsing.
Incentivise the use of specialist out of court disposals such as those delivered by Project CARA in Hampshire.
Rewrite police guidance to support appropriate use of out of court disposals and approaches for domestic abuse incidents.
Review plans to expand the domestic violence protection order given limited evidence of its effectiveness.
Evaluate the domestic abuse programmes delivered by prisons and probation.
Expand the availability of successful accredited perpetrator programmes, both those delivered by prisons and probation, and in the community.
Pilot deferred prosecution for those accused of domestic abuse.
Work out why domestic abuse has reduced significantly and how to accelerate that societal change.