Will Clare's Law really help reduce domestic violence?

Not everyone with prior domestic violence convictions goes on to reoffend.

In 2009, Clare Wood, from Salford, Greater Manchester, was strangled to death and her body set alight by her former boyfriend, George Appleton. His body was found hanged 6 days later in an abandoned pub in the Greater Manchester area.

This was a particularly high-profile crime, and received much attention in the national press. The murder was the culmination of a series of incidents of domestic violence in the couple’s relationship, many of which were reported to the local Police Force, but no action was taken. An IPCC report found Greater Manchester Police to be guilty of “systematic failures” in relation to the case.

An inquest delivered a verdict of unlawful killing. Upon hearing this verdict, Wood's father, Michael Brown, seemed to suggest that domestic violence was particularly commonplace in the UK. This sentiment was echoed by former Home Office minister, Lynne Featherstone, who stated that we need to:

“deal with domestic violence which is unacceptable and epidemic in this country”

However, according to the British Crime Survey of 2011, incidents of “intimate partner violence” have fallen by around 50 per cent over the past 20 years. This only goes to show how mainstream media reporting can significantly skew official statistics and, with it, public understanding of particularly emotive topics.

A campaign, designed to allow people entering into new relationships to access information about potential partners’ propensity for domestic violence, was founded shortly after the inquest into Clare Wood's death. This was backed by Clare’s father, her local MP, Hazel Blears, and eventually by Home Secretary, Theresa May, who stated that:

“The Government is committed to ensuring that the police and other agencies have the tools necessary to tackle domestic violence to bring offenders to justice and ensure victims have the support they need to rebuild their lives”

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) pilot scheme will run for an initial 12 months, and allows anyone living in the areas covered by the pilot forces (Gwent, Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, and Nottinghamshire), to apply to their local police force for information on prospective partners’ previous involvement in violent crime.

But do we need a scheme like DVDS, and will it be effective?

Whilst research shows that previous violence is the single biggest predictor of future violence, and this is possibly the rationale behind the introduction of the DVDS pilot scheme, it should be noted that not everyone with historical convictions for violent crimes go on to beat his or her future partners.

Many have concerns about the information being provided under DVDS legislation. It could be the case that many applications for information will return false-negative results (that is, police could report no previous record of violence, despite a history of violent behaviour). This is due to the under-reporting of domestic violence, with an estimate 50 per cent of all cases of domestic violence going unrecorded due to factors such as the victim believing the issue to be a private one, low prosecution levels, or fear of additional attacks. Even where cases of domestic violence are reported, success of the DVDS is dependent on police forces taking appropriate actions in order to record complaints and protect potential victims. 

And what about the impact of the DVDS on ex-offenders? 

Many people who, after being convicted and appropriately punished for committing violent crimes, begin to rebuild their lives in the community. Schemes such as the DVDS have a potentially destructive effect on their journey towards desistance from crime.

Desistance is the process by which an ex-offender adopts a non-criminal identity. This is often a long and difficult journey, beginning in prison, and continuing through into the community upon release. Official statistics suggest that around 60 per cent of prisoners are re-convicted with 12 months of release – a figure used by populist media outlets as evidence for longer and harsher sentencing. 

However, a group of desistance scholars had the idea to look towards a group who may shed some light on how people move away from crime – the 40 per cent who are not reconvicted. Their research led to the development of a documentary, The Road from Crime, which provides an insightful analysis of the desistance process.

Findings from US-based research into “Megan’s Law”, a scheme whereby parents can apply for information about a person’s previous sexual offending, found that over-surveillance was in fact a risk factor for future offending. This has clear implications for the DVDS scheme, which could be seen as preventing ex-offenders from forming meaningful personal relationships – a factor considered to be key to long-term desistance.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life … [and] … There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except … in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Research suggests that, after desisting from crime for three years, you are no more likely to engage in crime than anybody else.  Surely continuing to monitor those who seem to be desisting is potentially depriving them of opportunities to form long-term intimate relationships, and therefore contravenes Article 8?

In short, although any bid to reduce the numbers of people being victimised by domestic violence is to be commended, the DVDS pilot has many issues to address before being completely failsafe. More active solutions to the domestic violence problem should be examined, such as more efficient system for relationship education and problem solving skills in schools, as opposed to the government’s current, reactionary, approach to criminal justice. Failing to do so potentially puts people at risk of re-offending, and could lead to complaints being made under Human Rights law.

Photograph by Elvert Barnes on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

The Domestic Violence Awareness Mural: "A Survivor's Journey" (2010) by Joel Bergner in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Craig is a forensic psychology blogger interested in evidence-based criminal justice and desistance from crime. He tweets as @CraigHarper19.

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.