The justice system is failing women

Published by The i paper (15th March, 2021)

Truly, these are strange times. Last week began with a flood of messages on social media celebrating female empowerment on International Women’s Day and ended with politicians calling for the sacking of the first woman to hold the country’s top policing job after shocking scenes at a vigil for a murdered woman.  Met police chief Cressida Dick’s officers screwed up badly in south London. Pictures of police dragging off women taking a stand over the case of a woman dragged off the street could hardly have been more damaging for the force.

Yet while examining the Met’s mistakes, we must recognise their invidious position when home secretary Priti Patel orders police to take tough action against protests and they must enforce the Government’s bewildering maze of lockdown legislation. More importantly, we must not let this upsetting furore distract from the reason for that vigil at a Clapham bandstand ringed with floral tributes. A woman called Sarah Everard was kidnapped when walking home and killed. A man has been charged with murder. A family has been shattered. And this sickening case has ignited a much needed national discussion over the safety of women.

It is easy to fume over the police’s response. Far harder to tackle the issues of male harassment, intimidation, pervasive sexism and violence that confront women. The fear half our population feels walking home after dark. Their need to be on constant alert that I have never felt as a man. The banter, the jokes, the jibes, the put-downs that daily demean them. The online aggression that silences them, the online porn that warps men’s minds. Even the hypocrisy that permits a male prime minister to boast of being a feminist when he previously pinned a nude calendar at his desk and said things such as “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”.

Now politicians chorus that something must be done. Then they retreat to the usual mantras of demanding heavier sentencing and tough new laws. Labour has joined Tory backbenchers in saying the Government must start by increasing prison terms for serious sex offenders such as stalkers and rapists. This is standard headline-grabbing displacement activity that passes for action at Westminster when we need a drastic shake-up of a criminal justice system and have a society that too often fails women.

Sex offences are complex. Consent can be hard to establish, while one government study found its main treatment programme made no difference to reoffending rates and may even have made them worse. The authorities also know threats of longer prison terms do not stop crime. “Harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect,” said justice minister Chris Philp last week, adding that research showed the chance of being caught and punished was more crucial than length of time spent behind bars.

We know sex offenders often carry out lesser crimes, then escalate abuse if not caught. The man accused of Sarah Everard’s murder has been linked to flashing in a fast food restaurant last month. Meanwhile the number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low. Data from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed that in 2019/20 only 1,439 suspects in cases where a rape was alleged were convicted of rape or another crime – half the number three years ago. The number of cases reported to police has risen sharply, but only one in 25 make it to court – although those that do end up before a judge have decent conviction rates.

Now let me remind you about Alice. This is not her real name.  Two years ago I wrote about this woman in her thirties who suffered savage assault in 2018 by a stranger. She went to a rape crisis centre, submitted to medical examination, the police were nice and the assailant simple to trace, so she agreed to press charges. But after the CPS became involved she felt like she was under suspicion. She had to hand over hundreds of private text messages, passwords to her phone and social media, even therapy records from before the assault. This horror still hangs over her head, preventing closure.

The alleged attacker has finally been charged but the case not yet come to court. “It is horrible to have this still in my life after two and a half years,” she said. “It’s there all the time and the prospect of giving evidence is really frightening.” There was no drink, no drugs, no suggestion of consent, so this is – for such an assault case – relatively clear cut. Yet she fears the prosecution wants to portray her as a troublemaker, while the accused has not even had phone records searched.

This self-assured professional woman took action because she knows that if violent men are not stopped they will attack others. She appreciates the difficulty of proving rape beyond reasonable doubt. Yet when I asked Alice if she would go to the police again, her reply was chilling. “No. I would say to any attacked woman that they are better off sorting out their mental health and trying to get their life back on track. There is too much time spent asking if women are guilty, mistrusting women who are victims, and too little attention on violent men.”

Here lies the heart of this problem of male aggression: too much focus on female victims and too little focus on male perpetrators. Instead of calling for longer prison terms we need to tackle lethal state failure – shifting from an adversarial approach in sexual offences, examining reforms such as restorative justice, fixing the dismal prison system, boosting rehabilitation services. But these issues go far deeper than even the most radical systemic reforms. They go to the heart of a society in which women feel unsafe to walk home and too many insecure men see them as a foil for their own sad inadequacies.

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