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I believe in evidence

Penelope Gibbs
02 Mar 2019

“Don’t you believe in anything?” “Yes”, Isaac Asimov said. “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers”. I’m getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of evidence underpinning much of our criminal justice system. The system is highly coervice, and limits individual freedom. If there is good evidence for enforcement, fair enough. But too much is done on the basis of supposition and belief.

Despite government focus, current policy on domestic abuse has a weak evidence base. We don’t know why incidents of domestic abuse have been going down (according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales), but a greater proportion of these crimes are being reported. We don’t know what factors in a person’s life makes them stop abusing, nor what interventions or programmes improve the safety of victims. We have no long term studies of victims or abusers.

We do know however (from international studies) that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse, and that more punitive sanctions are associated with an escalation in abuse. We learnt recently that CRC companies working with domestic abuse perpetrators are “making up” rehabilitation programmes, while the accredited programmes have no outcome evaluations.

The inspectorate of police (HMICFRS) has just published a review of how forces deal with domestic abuse. They measure performance against a framework of indicators. Some of these are just common sense – like being able to track how often victims of domestic abuse call the police, and seeking feedback from all alleged victims, not just those who agree to co-operate with prosecution.

But the inspectorate also sets up performance targets that have scant evidence base. In this report, as in previous, they imply that more arrests for domestic abuse are necessarily better. HMI Zoe Billingham wrote “I’m troubled that we found the number of arrests for domestic abuse-related crimes fell in 23 forces, despite the overall number of these offences increasing, often substantially. Forces need to be able to explain why this is happening, and ensure they are taking positive action to protect victims”. But there is no research to support the policy of always prosecuting domestic abuse. Evidence for specialist out of court disposals suggests they are as (sometimes more) effective as court sentences in reducing offending.  And the risk of prosecuting is that victims are often reluctant to co-operate so police often end up taking no action at all, or cases collapse.

HMICFRS also encourages forces to use domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) – civil orders imposed on those suspected on the balance of probabilities of committing domestic abuse. The report hails a 14% increase in the use of DVPOs as positive. These orders are highly restrictive, forcing suspected abusers to live away from home and not to contact the victim. They sound like a good idea, but the evidence for these orders working is not strong. The original evaluation was based on a relatively small number of matched samples, found DVPOs did not work in the case of victims who had called the police out only once or twice, and that the orders were not cost effective. There is no long term research on whether these orders do protect victims.

Inspectors have huge power to change police behaviour. And it is great that HMICFRS has encouraged police to take domestic abuse more seriously. But their emphasis on enforcement and prosecution may have incentivised police to put scarce resources into prosecuting cases that would be better dealt with out of court. Of course the police, Transform Justice and HMICFRS agree that high risk abusers who do great damage to victims need to be prosecuted and, if convicted, imprisoned but most cases are not high risk.

It is not HMICFRS’ responsibility to commission research. So its not their fault that there are huge gaps in what we know about what works to reduce abuse. But in the absence of evidence maybe they could be more wary of pushing particular interventions.  Lets create a new performance framework based on measures of procedural justice and on outcomes.  Did alleged victims and perpetrators feel that they were dealt with respect? Did alleged victims successfully access support? If a caution was used, did the perpetrator re-offend? If you got Chief Constables, police domestic abuse leads and experts together and asked them to put together a performance framework along these lines, it would then have the full buy-in of practitioners themselves.