Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 4 March 2020
Victims of violent crime and sex offences often feel left neglected by the criminal justice system. Some women have discovered by chance that their attacker is going to be released from prison, leaving them fearful and unsure how to protect themselves. So the news that victims are to get
more rights in future, including a legal right to be told about perpetrators’ release dates, is being welcomed by campaigners – but it leaves too many questions unanswered.
What is a woman to do when she’s told that the man who raped her will be free in a matter of weeks? Two years ago, that was the dilemma that faced victims of the black cab rapist, John Worboys, when they found out he’d been cleared for release by the parole board. The women hadn’t been consulted, even though Worboys recorded his victims’ addresses in a notebook and knew where they lived.
The then Justice Secretary, David Gauke, refused to seek a judicial review of the decision and two of Worboys’ victims crowdfunded a legal challenge. They won at the High Court, which sent the case back to the parole board. Worboys has since been tried and convicted on a new set of charges, but the case highlighted the failure of the criminal justice system to consult victims of serious sexual violence.
Now another Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, has announced a new victims’ code which will set out 12 rights and be included in a bill planned for later this year. As well as an automatic right to be informed about release dates, victims will be able to challenge parole board decisions, request restrictions following release and ask that perpetrators be barred from contact.
The aim to put victims at the centre of the parole system is laudable. ‘Falling victim to crime can be a distressing and life-changing experience, so it is vital people get the support they need,’ says Buckland. He’s absolutely right – but what support will there be, in reality, for a woman who’s been raped by a prolific serial offender?
Women who’ve seen stalkers and domestic abusers repeatedly breach restraining orders know how little protection they offer. And police and probation officers don’t have the resources to track the day-to-day movements of dangerous offenders who’ve been released from custody.
In April last year Joseph McCann, a burglar with a history of knife crime who had mistakenly been released from prison a few weeks earlier, carried out a string of sex attacks on eleven women and children. McCann had had ten meetings with probation officers following his release, the last one only three days before he went on his cocaine and alcohol-fuelled spree. He had also received a warning letter after he breached his licence conditions. Last December, he was given 33 life sentences with a minimum term of 30 years.
The question of how likely someone is to re-offend isn’t addressed in the announcement about a new victims’ code. But the government’s own figures show that the overall adult re-offending rate is 28 per cent, rising to 36.7 per cent of adults released from custody. These figures are alarming but not surprising, given how many convicted criminals are serial offenders. There are scarce resources for rehabilitation in our over-stretched prison service, and the main sex offender treatment programme was scrapped three years ago after a report found it actually led to more reoffending.
Victims who feel at risk from violent men will welcome the opportunity to challenge parole board decisions, but some of them will feel unable to do it without help from lawyers. Will legal aid be available for such cases of will they be forced, like Worboys’ victims, to launch a crowd-funding campaign? And while the right to be informed of an attacker’s release date is a step forward, there needs to be an urgent review of how to protect victims in the high-risk category. Inevitably, many will be rape survivors and victims of extreme domestic violence.
Only last month, the latest Femicide Census showed that over half of women killed by men in 2018 were killed by a current or ex-partner. Three of the men included in the report had previously killed another women, showing that some offenders who have been convicted and served sentences continue to pose a significant threat following their release.
Of course it’s right that the criminal justice system should take more account of victims, especially when an offender’s imminent release may have a huge impact on someone’s life. But there is a whole raft of other measures, such as installing panic buttons and safe rooms, that aren’t addressed by the latest announcement.
The truth is that many victims of crime continue to feel unsafe. Codes are all very well, but there are too many unanswered questions about whether these measures will protect women who rightly fear further serious violence.