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Column: ‘Do the crime, do the time’ – serious crimes need serious sentencing

Monetary compensation over custodial sentences for domestic and sexual crimes is never appropriate. There should be no mixed messages in our justice system, writes Margaret Martin.

Margaret Martin

ONE IN THREE women worldwide will experience some form of violence and abuse at some point in her lifetime. Every day in Ireland women are beaten, raped and abused by those closest to them – their boyfriends, husbands and partners.  One in five women in the Republic of Ireland experience domestic violence. National research conducted by the National Crime Council in 2005 estimated that 213,000 women in Ireland had experienced severe abuse in their lifetime. Women’s Aid hears from thousands of women each year who are suffering in abusive relationships, alone and afraid.

As a national organisation that has been working for almost 40 years to stop domestic abuse of women and children our frontline services support many thousands of women who have been physical, emotionally, sexually and financially abused in intimate relationships.  Often women are experiencing overlapping forms of abuse.

Pillar of the community

Domestic violence cuts across society. It can happen to any woman, in any home and at any stage of her life.  Likewise, the men who beat and terrorise women come from all walks of life.  They can be the local doctor, butcher, teacher, a Hollywood actor, a world famous singer, or the local policeman.  He can be a man you meet in the dole queue or at the school gates.  He can be the ‘pillar of the community’. Domestic violence is a serious crime but often it is not treated as such. Many people in society at every level excuse the behaviour of abusive men as being ‘out of character’ while blaming women for ‘choosing’ violent relationships, for provoking the abuse, or for not leaving when abuse starts.

This ‘victim-blaming’ or minimising of abuse can also be a factor in how our criminal justice system approaches cases of domestic and sexual violence.  There have been several recent cases which have provoked much debate on the issue of appropriate sanction for crimes against women including where monetary compensation has been favoured over custodial sentences.  While Women’s Aid cannot comment on individual cases, we see the need for change so that women experiencing abuse will feel more confident and safer when engaging with the justice system.
Domestic violence covers a number of criminal offences including murder, manslaughter, attempted murder, assault, harassment, rape and indecent assault, criminal damage and breaches of orders under the Domestic Violence Act.  These are very serious offences and any sentence needs to be commensurate with the crime.  The fact that the perpetrator of the crime is a partner or spouse should not be a mitigating factor.  On the contrary, the fact that someone has been attacked by someone they are intimately involved with means that the relationship of trust has been breached, which adds to the victim’s harm.  In addition, as the perpetrator knows the woman personally and her circumstances, there is a much higher risk of re-victimisation than if the crime was committed by a stranger.

Sentencing

While there is a dearth of recent data relating to criminal sentencing in cases of domestic violence, Women’s Aid will be examining this issue over the next while. Our last national study carried out in 1999 found that only between one and six per cent of domestic violence offenders in Ireland receive a prison sentence. In the UK sentencing guidelines for Domestic Violence crimes state that offences committed in a domestic context should be regarded as being no less serious that in a non-domestic context.  Indeed, it states that the domestic context means that there are more aggravating factors that make it more serious.

Engaging with the criminal justice system is a difficult process for anyone.  For women who have been attacked by their current or former partner the difficulties can increase.  They may come under sustained pressure to withdraw from proceedings or to retract statements.  This pressure can include threats of further, or actual, abuse.  Therefore, once a woman continues with a case it would be hoped that the crime is taken seriously, that there would be consistency in sentencing and that the sentence would reflect the impact of the physical or sexual assault on her.

When the judicial system fails to properly sanction domestic and sexual violence against women it gives out mixed messages.  It not only minimises the harm to the victim and perhaps deters other women from pursing cases, it also tells the perpetrators and the rest of society that these crimes are not as serious, are not as impactful and can be swept under the carpet if you pay up.

This does not give justice to victims of domestic and sexual violence and shows the need for clear guidelines for sentencing in cases of domestic and sexual crimes.

Margaret Martin is the director of Women’s Aid. It is the only free, national, domestic violence helpline with specialised trained staff. Women’s Aid also offers a Dublin-based One to One Support Service and Court Accompaniment Service and also refers to local refuges and support services around the country. The Women’s Aid Helpline 1800 341 900.

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Margaret Martin

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