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February 6, 2020

How to target the most serious domestic abusers

There are very few who criticise the draft domestic abuse bill. But many campaigners will admit that the measures in it are unlikely to significantly reduce abuse. It has good proposals – it’s right that those accused of DA (domestic abuse) should not cross examine their alleged victims in the family court, and that our prosecutors should get jurisdiction over DA offences committed abroad. But it also expands civil orders which are designed to keep someone accused of abuse away from the alleged victim and the latter’s home and proposes that breach of such orders should be a criminal offence. Such measures sound good/tough but there is no evidence the current orders reduce abuse except in the very short-term, and they could stoke the anger (and violence) of those ejected from the family home.

We do need a strategy to stop abusers committing more abuse. But the new perpetrator strategy put forward by a number of violence against women and girls organisations needs to be broader. And to give up the reliance on increased prosecution and civil orders to deliver change – the strategy refers to “worryingly low rates of referrals of domestic violence and abuse incidents for prosecution”. We need to prosecute those who pose a great risk but if criminal justice sanctions don’t reduce abuse, there is no point dragging reluctant victims of less serious abuse and their abusers through the resource hungry court system.

The issue of what works and who to target in the case of domestic abuse is highlighted by a fantastic PhD by Dr Matthew Bland (a former police analyst) on targeting domestic abuse. He had access to 290,241 police records for domestic abuse and was able to work out what proportion of those arrested are high harm abusers.

We already know that domestic abuse is not usually a repeat crime. Three quarters of victims have only one recorded case of domestic abuse. And three quarters of those who commit domestic case have only one recorded case. Does the abuse just stop (because a toxic relationship ends or because police intervention is a deterrent) or does it go “underground”? We don’t know. And repeat reports of domestic abuse are not normally stories of escalation. Where there are five or more reports of abuse, the first reported crime is usually the most serious.

So who is creating the most harm? Matthew calculates that 80% of all harm is linked to fewer than 3% of offenders. So we need to work out who they are and how to prevent them abusing. Up until recently it has been assumed that the most dangerous domestic abuse perpetrators are those who abuse more than one victim. But this research reveals a more complex picture. Unfortunately in the case of more than 40% of the most harmful cases (grievous bodily harm and more serious offences) the police have not dealt with the victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse before – a very serious crime is the first one reported. So in these cases the police have little opportunity to prevent the crime. Of the rest of the high harm cases, some of the perpetrators are serial abusers (those who move from victim to victim) but the rest are repeat abusers who have abused the same person more than once.  

Matthew’s doctorate suggests we need to get much smarter at targeting police resources effectively. Currently most forces send emergency response teams to every single DA incident and officers are under huge pressure to prosecute. Matthew has developed an algorithm to try to predict who is most likely to commit the highest harm domestic abuse crimes. Use of it would help police tailor their response but, as Matthew points out, we don’t have good evidence of what approaches and sanctions work in what way. A new programme – Drive – seems to have had some success with the perpetrators who create the highest harm, but the mechanism for success is not yet clear. And it, like many other programmes, can be voluntary or mandatory. We need to understand what difference that makes.

What we do know in general is that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse and that imprisonment is correlated with increased abuse. Refuges and civil orders banning perpetrators from going near their victim are sticking plasters – a sometimes essential temporary fix to a wicked problem. And many alleged victims point blank refuse to leave or to co-operate with the police and the criminal justice system anyway. That is their right.

Dr Matthew Bland has proved that identifying the most “dangerous” domestic abuse perpetrators is difficult and that huge police resources are currently being devoted to people who are unlikely to reoffend. There is no reference to this in the draft domestic abuse bill. That’s why we need much more research and, given the lack of evidence of exactly what works, less policy change.