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Plans to release prisoners early ‘endangers domestic abuse victims’

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs warned the plans ‘could be dangerous’ for domestic abuse victims (PA)
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs warned the plans ‘could be dangerous’ for domestic abuse victims (PA)

Fears have been raised that plans to release prisoners on short sentences up to two months early leave victims of domestic abuse at grave risk.

It comes after the Justice Secretary announced inmates could be released from prison two months early in a bid to tackle the overcrowding crisis gripping jails.

In the wake of a written statement to the House of Commons by minister Alex Chalk on Monday evening, the Ministry of Justice said prisons would have the licence to release so-called “low-level offenders” up to 35 days before their sentences are due to end.

Officials said the statement would also enable the government to lengthen early release to up to 60 days if needed in the future.

Individuals convicted of terrorist offences, sex offences and violent offences who receive a sentence of four years or more will be excluded from the plans but domestic abusers are not exempt.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs warned the plans “could be dangerous” for domestic abuse victims as she argued domestic abusers are routinely serial offenders and the sentences they are handed often do not indicate the “severity of harm and the risk they pose”.

She added: “Victims should not pay the price for prison overcrowding. Since the announcement of the early release scheme, there has been no transparent evaluation of the scheme’s impact on domestic abuse victims, nor the probation service’s ability to properly manage perpetrators.”

Ms Jacobs called for a “specific exemption of perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking from this scheme”.

She added: “Government must also ensure that the probation service is funded and trained to properly manage domestic abuse perpetrators and keep victims safe.”

It comes after The Independent revealed thousands of abusive men could walk free from court under the government’s plans to scrap in full some shorter sentences in a desperate attempt to solve the overcrowding crisis overwhelming jails.

This newspaper revealed 11,040 men were jailed for around 12 months or less for harassment, stalking and revenge porn in 2022 – all sentences that it was feared could be served in the community as the government scrambles to free up space in overcrowded jails.

Politicians, campaigners and the government’s own domestic violence watchdog previously told The Independent they were fearful domestic abusers and stalkers could “slip through the net”, while Labour warned the proposals had been “rushed out with no consideration for victims”.

Reality TV star Georgia Harrison, who was a victim of revenge porn at the hands of her former partner, Stephen Bear, raised concerns over the repercussions axing short sentences could have on victims.

After The Independent’s article, the government announced that “stalkers, abusers, and prolific offenders continue to face time behind bars”. It said domestic abusers would still face prison time, with judges able to imprison all offenders who pose a substantial risk of “psychological or physical harm” to their victim.

Discussing the latest government announcement, Amy Bowdrey, of Refuge, a leading domestic abuse charity which The Independent is partnered with, said they were “deeply concerned”.

She added: “We know that there is a lack of understanding around domestic abuse within the criminal justice system, and that perpetrators are often given short custodial sentences that do not reflect the serious nature of their crimes.

“Early release - without an exemption for violence against women and girls perpetrators - puts survivors’ physical safety and mental well-being at risk, and it is imperative that the government acknowledge the dangers that this scheme could pose to them.”

She warned the early release plans are dependant on an “underfunded and under-resourced” probation service which her organisation knows is not properly safeguarding domestic abuse victims.

Labour has warned the extension to 60 days is “unprecedented” and argued the move is “completely unacceptable”.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “This government has been releasing prisoners in secret, including domestic abusers - and has activated a supposedly temporary scheme indefinitely.

The Ministry of Justice states the Prison Service will be able to prevent the release of any prisoner if they consider this necessary.

Mr Chalk said: “We will also extend the existing end-of-custody supervised licence measure to around 35-60 days.

“We will enable this to happen, for a time-limited period, and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required.”

The senior Tory added: “Where necessary, electronic monitoring will be applied, enhancing public protection. Ministers will continue to keep use of this measure under review.”

Charlotte Proudman, a barrister who specialises in violence against women and girls, added: “This push for even earlier releases, from the same justice system that continues to fail to protect women and girls from male violence, will only further crush women’s confidence and trust in the justice system. The UK sees dismal prosecution and conviction rates.”

Probation hostels, which house high-risk departing inmates, are already seeing people convicted of domestic violence coming through their doors after being released early, Ian Lawrence, head of the probation union Napo, told The Independent.

“Our concern is that domestic violence is a vastly underrated offence. What some politicians don’t understand is that domestic violence is often the very first step in people of so-called lower-medium risk gravitating up the scale towards more serious offences. This is proven statistically.

“You initially have domestic violence, the victim may successfully get an injunction out against that person, and then that person stalks them for six months, and ultimately … two women [each week] are murdered by their former husbands or partners because the law isn’t tough enough.”