News – Scrapping short jail terms in England and Wales puts women at risk, says abuse watchdog

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Abusive men in England and Wales will walk free from court under a new sentencing policy that flies in the face of ministers’ claims to take domestic violence seriously, an independent government watchdog has said.

Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner, said ministers had not done enough to protect women from a decision to lift the pressures on overcrowded prisons by scrapping short prison sentences.

The government’s sentencing bill puts a duty on judges to give suspended sentences where they may otherwise have given jail terms of 12 months or less.

After advocacy groups raised concerns, an exemption was added in November in cases where convicted individuals had breached a court order or could be shown to pose a significant risk of causing psychological or physical harm to another person.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jacobs said this was inadequate and that the government’s failure to respond to her call for a specific exemption for perpetrators of domestic abuse was putting women at risk.

She claimed the probation service did not have the capacity to properly advise judges and magistrates on the dangers posed by perpetrators of domestic violence.

A recent recruitment drive for probation officers has increased numbers by 8.2% year on year. However, the service was lacking experience, Jacobs said, and the rehabilitation on offer to abusive men within the community was operating at full capacity.

She said it was unacceptable that the minority of women who felt able to cooperate with an investigation all the way to conviction should be left exposed by the system. Last year, 6.8% of domestic abuse reports resulted in a charge. For sexual offences flagged as domestic abuse, the charge rate was even lower, at 3%.

Jacobs said: “It’s not that I think that prison is the best idea for everyone. But it is not the case that someone who is in for a kind of low-level sentence is not a very dangerous person to the victim. What it has taken to get the victim to a point where that has actually happened, most of the time that will be relying on a statement by the victim.

“You know, four out of five won’t ever report [domestic abuse] to the police. So when you take the one out of five who report to the police, and then you get to a fraction of them who actually get to the court, and if at that stage the court says: ‘Oh, we’ll give you a community sentence,’ that really just flies in the face of this kind of rhetoric by the government that domestic abuse is serious, that it is as serious as terrorism, organised crime. That is such a mismatch.”

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