Perpetrators and the criminal justice system – some reflections

Justina Murray has worked as Chief Officer with South West Scotland Community Justice Authority since 2010. Prior to this she worked in a variety of partnership, policy and research roles in Scotland and New Zealand.

Here Justina details why it is important we also support the perpetrators of crimes like stalking if we all want to live in a safer and stronger Scotland.

You can contact the College’s Student Services teams or organisations like Women’s Aid if you or anyone you know requires support.

I was privileged to stand alongside colleagues from Action against Stalking, Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to launch the Victim Impact Box on 25 November at College Development Network.

Given my role is to work in partnership with others to reduce re-offending, I was tasked with presenting on the topic of ‘Perpetrators and the Criminal Justice System’.  It’s not often I find myself struggling to think what to say, but when I sat down to write my presentation, the words didn’t fly off the keyboard the way they usually do.

I thought about how I had first heard Ann Moulds speak publicly about her soul-destroying, frustrating and at times humiliating experience of stalking – not only at the hands of her stalker, but also at the hands of the justice system itself, which undoubtedly re-victimised her and made a bad situation even worse.

I thought about the commitments she had made to use the exhausting and debilitating impact of being a victim of crime to improve the response for other victims of stalking, and how much good progress had been made in terms of supporting the reporting, investigation and prosecution of stalking.

But when I thought about what happens next – once someone accused of stalking appears in court, I concluded there had been far better progress at the earlier stages of the justice system than we have managed at these later stages in terms of supporting and challenging perpetrators to acknowledge and change their behaviour.

There has been good progress in terms of policy and legislation. Not only Ann’s achievement around legislation specifically on stalking, but also the wider developments around strengthening legislation around domestic abuse and the development of the Equally Safe strategy. There is no doubt that our political leaders continue to recognise the impact of violence against women and have been reasonably proactive in tackling it.

The same goes for practice by a number of criminal justice agencies – individual police forces and now Police Scotland have made huge strides away from seeing incidents of coercive control as ‘just as a domestic’, and there is definitely more support to report, better investigative methods, and a presumption to charge. Official statistics also suggest reasonably high rates of prosecution and conviction compared to other crimes.

There are a number of robust accredited stalking risk tools which can help professionals assess and manage individual cases in the community and in prison. However cases which result in an admonishment, a fine, a low-level Community Payback Order (such as unpaid work without supervision) or a short prison sentence will not enable this level of response – there is limited opportunity to work with the perpetrator on any issues at all. Although statistics are not available for sentencing outcomes specifically on stalking (as they are published together as ‘Group 6: Breach of the Peace offences’), I would make the assumption that these kinds of sentences together make up the majority of disposals if they reflect the wider trends around sentencing for domestic abuse.

We need to see a response which enables more intensive work with people on an individual basis to challenge and change their behaviour. I am no apologist for perpetrators, but are there many happy, well-adjusted stalkers? I suspect we are dealing with many people – mainly men – who are damaging to others but also damaged themselves.

This must be the focus of our future work together. We know this will take resources, effort and a belief that people can take responsibility, reflect on their actions, be supported to change and live a productive and meaningful life. Only by doing this can we significantly reduce the number of victims in the future and create the safer and stronger Scotland we all want to see.

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