Page last updated at 15:33 GMT, Friday, 30 November 2007

Early release 'putting women at risk'

By Victoria Bone
BBC News


Domestic abuse (generic)
Women's groups fear victims could be put at increased risk

In June, the overcrowding crisis in Britain's prisons forced the government to take drastic action by allowing some inmates to be released early.

The End of Custody Licence (ECL) Scheme means offenders can be let out up to 18 days early if they are serving sentences of between four months and four years.

At least initially, it did ease the pressure on prisons, but the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) says it has transferred that strain to them.

They say the scheme has failed to ease overcrowding as the prison population has crept back up.

And they fear that insufficient monitoring of some of those released is putting vulnerable women at risk of domestic violence.

The Ministry of Justice says local police ought to be warned when a prison believes that an offender is likely to be a threat to his victim after release.

Violence committed

Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, said: "Our main concern was that men who were convicted of domestic violence would be able to return to their partner's address.

"And indeed we know there have been a number of occasions where men have returned, violence has been committed and the police have been involved.

"We warned the government it would happen and it has."

The cause of this problem, Mr Fletcher says, is that like any others released early after a sentence of less than 12 months, domestic violence offenders are not referred to the probation service.

It's one more failure by the system and it's putting victims at risk
Neil Blacklock, Respect

He says this means no risk assessment is done on them and their address - that to which they will return once released - is not checked either.

In effect, Mr Fletcher says this means they can go back unchecked to the home of their victim.

Neil Blacklock, development director of Respect, an organisation that works with perpetrators of domestic violence, said he was not surprised at the revelation.

"It's one more failure by the system and it's putting victims at risk," Mr Blacklock said.

"I wonder if the women get any warning that these men are going to be released. I suspect not."

Mr Blacklock said that under normal circumstances when a woman knows her abuser is being released she can take steps to protect herself.

Prison cell
Campaigners say prison is overused for relatively minor crimes

She can apply for an order barring him from approaching or she can be given help to improve the security of her home with measures like alarms, reinforced doors and CCTV.

Nicola Harwin CBE, chief executive of Women's Aid, said: "We are extremely concerned if violent men are being released early without warning to their former partners.

"And in fact, because domestic violence is not a specific offence, i.e. not counted or listed separately, no-one knows how many of those released on end of custody licences have been convicted of domestic violence offences."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said that as with any release prisons should notify police if they have information that indicates a risk to a victim.

"Where the prison has information that indicates the prisoner has given the address of his victim as his release address, this should be flagged up to the local police so that measures to address the risk can be put in place," she added.

'Onerous duty'

Napo also say that early release has not solved the problem it was meant to - and has created new ones for its members.

Mr Fletcher said: "The prison population went down for about six or seven weeks, but after that the rate of people going into custody outstripped the rate at which they were being released.

While we know there is prison overcrowding, we are failing to recognise there is also probation overcrowding
Jackie Worrall, Nacro

"There has also been a significant increase in workload for officers. Even when probation aren't involved with a person they still come to us for advice and they're not turned away.

"It's another onerous duty placed on probation without an increase in resources."

Crime reduction charity Nacro feels opportunities for probation officers to share their load must be explored.

Jackie Worrall, director of policy and public affairs, said: "While we know there is prison overcrowding, we are failing to recognise there is also probation overcrowding.

"With prisons, it's clear when they're full up, but with the probation service the government seem to think there'll always be a bit more room.

"Hopefully we're getting to the stage where there will have to be much greater recognition of the role that the voluntary sector can play.

"They can offer support to offenders who are released early with things like accommodation, mental health problems and employment."

The Ministry of Justice denied that the ECL scheme had overburdened the probation service, saying most of those released did not enter the system.




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