September 27 2023

Punishing domestic violence, criminalising social failure

Punishing domestic violence, criminalising social failure

Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

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Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

This week, our Home Secretary, Theresa May closed her public consultation on strengthening the law on domestic violence. There seems to be a wish to create a specific offence that captures patters of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships. I continue to cast doubt as to whether penalisation and criminalisation of social justice failures, such as domestic violence, will provide us with answers.

Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationships are complex phenomena that are often motivated by our hidden, or sometimes overt, biases, cultural and societal tendencies to interpret the world in a certain way. They are also expressions of our need to exercise power and control others, especially those closest to us.

Is the criminalisation of domestic violence our society’s easy way of shaking off our responsibilities by throwing even more people in prisons?

Domestic abuse is defined by our government as ‘any incident or patterns of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. The behaviour captured in this definition includes a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim. Domestic abuse can destroy the lives of many victims and indeed offenders, and it is a phenomenon that impacts on many families, their children and friends. In fact, the latest statistics reported in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) suggest that 30% of women and 16.3% of men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes.

The definition and our collective determination to root out the causes of domestic violence are not the problems. I argue that our taxes, resources and energy should be put into eradicating a culture of processing individuals through the criminal justice system as if it is a ‘sausage machine’. By treating those affected by domestic violence as individuals and not as numbers, by removing the labels of ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’, we might stand a chance of reducing the ever increasing numbers of abuses and the declining numbers of reported incidents.

Let me give an example. Jodie is 26 years’ old. She is a migrant and has two children. She comes from a minority background and lives with her partner, Colin, a 35-year-old Black British man. They are faced with a number of challenges such as a low income, alcohol addiction and mental health problems. Colin has never cheated on Jodie and he loves their children of three and five year old. Colin often hits Jodie and her family and friends are aware, but do not intervene. They know she loves him. One night, Colin is extremely angry and drunk and starts hitting Jodie with his belt. Jodie gets scared and calls the police. The police want to press charges, but Jodie declines.

This is not a one off case. It provides the basic ingredients of most domestic violence cases. How can I judge Jodie? More importantly, how can society, or Ms. May, label Colin as an offender and throw him in prison?

Jodie knows the deficiencies of the criminal justice system when it comes to race equality. She also loves Colin and wants him back home. What about her migrant status? What about her children? Now, turning to Colin, will imprisonment make him a better man? Will he shake off his drinking addiction and will prison help him address his mental health problems? When he comes out, where will he go? Back to Jodie? How will they get on, if she is the one who put him in prison?

It is about time that policy makers in Whitehall started developing laws and policies on the back of evidence. Academics and NGOs, such as Howard League, Prison Reform Trust and others have produced enough reports to answer the above questions. They are the real problems, not Colin.

And I am not writing these thoughts from theory. Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS), the charity that I run, has been leading on a gender violence project for three years working directly with migrant, refugee and minority women who have been abused. With funding from Comic Relief, our ‘Abused No More: The Voices of Refugee and Asylum-seeking Women’ has constructed an evidence-based, user-led training and awareness raising programme for professionals and service providers focusing on the impact of gender-related violence on refugee and asylum-seeking women and the need for a gender-sensitive treatment of this group. The project aims to generate institutional change and increased gender sensitivity in the treatment of refugee and asylum-seeking women, both by harnessing existing research and by allowing the women themselves to identify the problems they currently face through community-led action research. Research findings have been published in the IARS 2013 book Abused No More: Voices of Refugee and Asylum-seeking Women.

In her consultation, our Home Secretary is asking how to do operations better. I have an easy answer: by bringing police officers and her agents, face to face with the realities and complexities of domestic violence, by culturally educating them and by allowing them to learn from ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ of abuse. This shouldn’t be done through ready-made training packages delivered by big corporations. It should be done by allowing the women, the victims and the offenders to teach them.

I invite the Home Secretary to attend our women’s training. I ask her to listen to their stories and maybe she will understand that reporting domestic abuse of the person that you love is not an easy task. Seeing them behind bars is even more difficult especially when you know that you will end up with no money for rent and food, no visa or without your children.

I would also ask our Home Secretary to seriously take into consideration the new EU law on victims expanding legal definitions such as that victimhood is not necessarily a consequence of prosecution or arrest (Victims’ Directive 2012/29/EU). I would urge her to stop spending our money on pulling us out of our European family and try to learn from our European cousins a bit more about culture and the complexities of violence and gender inequality.

The Home Secretary is also welcome to review the evidence that is emerging from the EU programme that we are running with a number of European partners titled Restorative Justice in cases of domestic violence: Best practice examples between increasing mutual understanding and awareness of specific protection needs This project aims to generate and pilot new knowledge on practices of restorative justice and domestic violence, and to identify criteria for offering restorative approaches to such cases, in accordance with the Victims’ Directive.

The consultation notes that the Home Secretary is particularly interested in listening to victims. But how genuine is this wish? Is the criminal justice system ready to move victims from the margins to the centre? I invite May to our Annual Conference A Victim-led Criminal Justice System? on the 19th-20th November.

I am aware that a superficial analysis of my comments will make me rather unpopular. But winning the battle against inequality, whether gender or race related, is not a populist contest. It is a matter of evidence and a genuine wish to allow our communities’ voices to be heard raw and through bottom up structures.