Jail sentences to end for thousands of abusive men under plans to tackle overcrowding crisis

Exclusive: Government plans to stop judges sending criminals convicted of harassment, stalking and revenge porn to prison – but campaigners warn they could slip through the net

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Sunday 05 November 2023 11:35 GMT
Related video: Prisoners could be held in police cells to tackle overcrowding, justice minister says

Thousands of abusive men could walk free from court under the government’s plans to scrap some shorter sentences as it scrambles to tackle the overcrowding crisis gripping prisons – putting women’s safety at risk.

Some 11,040 men were jailed for around 12 months or less for harassment, stalking and revenge porn last year – all sentences that could now be served in the community to free up space in jails.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk’s proposals, announced earlier this month, would see prison terms of under 12 months axed for most offenders. Critics say the move will affect criminals who target women and girls who typically get low sentences – despite Rishi Sunak repeatedly pledging to do more to protect these victims.

Politicians, campaigners and the government’s own domestic violence watchdog have raised concerns over the measures amid fears domestic abusers and stalkers could “slip through the net”, with Labour saying the plans had been “rushed out with no consideration for victims”.

TV star Georgia Harrison, who was a victim of revenge porn at the hands of her former partner, fellow reality TV star Stephen Bear, told The Independent she had concerns over what impact scrapping short sentences could have on victims of crime. Bear was jailed for 21 months in March after he posted a video of the pair having sex in his garden in Loughton, Essex, in August 2020, to his OnlyFans account.

Ms Harrison, who has appeared on The Only Way Is Essex and Love Island, said: “For a lot of these men, especially in a misogynist culture, they feel like they are untouchable and they feel like they can get away with anything.

“And if Bear had walked away from my court case without prison time, I really don’t think he would have learned a single thing from the entire experience. If anything, I think he would have come back worse.”

The latest available figures from the Ministry of Justice for 2022 show:

  • 8,996 men were sentenced on average to less than five months for harassment
  • 1,809 men were sentenced on average to around 12 months behind bars for stalking offences
  • 235 men were sentenced for an average of just over seven months in prison for revenge porn offences
Georgia Harrison, pictured at the Labour Party Conference, has concerns over what impact scrapping short sentences could have on victims of crime (PA Wire)

The number of men sentenced for stalking and revenge porn offences has also increased substantially – from 1,384 in 2021 to 2,044 last year.

Ellie Butt, of domestic abuse charity Refuge, urged Mr Chalk to give “clear guidance” to judges so that offenders who commit violence against women and girls are not exempt from prison if they receive a sentence of less than a year.

She added: “These are not ‘low-level offenders’ and many perpetrators of domestic abuse will be in prison serving short sentences. So it is vital survivors of domestic abuse and violence against women and girl offences are protected and perpetrators of these crimes receive custodial sentences.”

Meanwhile, the UK’s domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs said: “Frequently, short sentences are the only recourse to hold these dangerous perpetrators to account”.

Ms Jacobs urged the government to get more officers on the streets to ensure police can properly monitor electronic tags and enforce any breaches of protective orders which block perpetrators from going near a victim’s home.

Stephen Bear was jailed for 21 months after he posted a video of him and Ms Harrison having sex in his garden to his OnlyFans account (Getty)

Charlotte Proudman, a barrister who specialises in violence against women and girls, said she feared women’s lives “could be at risk if perpetrators are given short sentences” – warning the new proposals would give “a lesser deterrent” to perpetrators not to continue their abuse.

She added: “How can women feel safe if they go through the difficult experience of reporting, even giving evidence, only to know their abuser may spend no time in prison?

“Under the current system, perpetrators are already being given short sentences of either weeks or months. Shorter sentences reflect a lack of understanding about the harmful impact of domestic abuse and suggest a minimisation of the harm caused to women and girls.”

Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said prison is not the right solution for many lower-level offenders who serve short sentences but that she is fearful many domestic abusers and stalkers “may slip through the net”.

The lawyer added: “As the sentences passed in relation to some very dangerous men do not always reflect the level of danger they pose, we have seen far too many cases of murder and other serious violent offences committed by men in breach of their licence conditions.”

Ms Harrison said: ‘A lot of these men, especially in a misogynist culture, they feel like they are untouchable and they feel like they can get away with anything’ (Georgia Harrison)

One in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives. Between two and three women are murdered each week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales.

Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist who specialises in homicide, domestic abuse and stalking, also warned scrapping shorter sentences “will place women’s lives at risk”.

The professor of public protection at the University of Gloucestershire added: “Rapists, domestic abusers, stalkers, and those who perpetrate revenge porn and wider cybersex crimes are often the most dangerous and most persistent. They are repeat offenders also.

“Punishing a fixated and obsessive person in the community leaves them able to continue with their obsessive behaviour. I would like to see those perpetrators exempted from these measures”.

Suky Bhaker, chief executive of Suzy Lamplugh Trust, a leading anti-stalking charity, said they “strongly” believe all sentences for stalking – irrespective of whether they are under 12 months or not – should involve being sent to prison and not include community service, fines or other measures.

Alex Chalk is tasked with tackling the growing overcrowding crisis in prisons (PA Wire)

She added: “Stalking is a high-risk crime of psychological terror defined by fixation and obsession that has a devastating impact on victims’ safety and mental health.”

Ms Bhaker, whose organisation runs the national stalking helpline, warned a hefty chunk of stalking cases are wrongly convicted at a lower level offence of stalking and routinely fail to “reflect the gravity and risk of the crime, which can sadly in some cases escalate to homicide”.

She added: “In many cases, sentences are less than 12 months, with rates for reoffending in stalking cases remaining very high.”

She raised concerns that even when protective orders are issued, perpetrators often infringe the orders, with many “continuing to stalk their victims in person and online further endangering their safety”.

Shabana Mahmood, shadow justice secretary, said: “The secretary of state’s announcements were a panicked response to a crisis of his government’s own making. Their policies have been rushed out with no consideration for victims after the government ignored warning after warning on the capacity crisis in our prisons.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “This government has gone further than any other to protect women and girls and judges will continue to have the power to send violent domestic abusers and stalkers to prison.

“We are going further by giving judges the power to keep the worst offenders including rapists behind bars for their whole sentence, while protecting victims and the public through exclusion zones, restraining orders and the use of electronic tags for heinous domestic abusers.”

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