Under new plans revealed by the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, prison terms of under 12 months will be axed for most offenders. This will have a detrimental effect on the sentencing of perpetrators of domestic abuse, who typically receive shorter sentences.
Custodial sentencing is an important part of the criminal justice response to domestic abuse perpetrators: it can and should provide justice, protection for survivors, rehabilitation for perpetrators and the opportunity for robust assessment and management of risk. A custodial sentence gives the survivor breathing space, and a chance to think clearly about their future with the perpetrator locked up and unable to harm them.
It is a travesty to scrap short sentences. We will be urgently asking what plans are in place to ensure that survivors are not put at further risk by a system which should be prioritising their safety.
However, even before this announcement, it’s clear that the current system is failing at every level.
The rates of conviction remain consistently low, and sentencing for domestic abuse related offences is often inadequate – it is already unusual to receive a custodial sentence. Those who do will have caused serious levels of harm and pose significant future risks. A recent HMIP report revealed that probation is currently failing to adequately address domestic abuse, so we have grave concerns about how they will respond to the additional numbers of perpetrators given community orders instead of custodial sentences, who are likely to remain a risk to ex-, current and future partners.
Of course many perpetrators never enter the criminal justice system, so custodial sentencing can only ever form part of the response to perpetrators. If we’re ever going to end domestic abuse, we need to reform the whole system and address abuse at its root cause.
But a robust and effective criminal justice system is critical. Putting survivors at risk through this short-sighted plan cannot be the answer to prison overcrowding.