In the Media

Stalking victims failed by the law

PUBLISHED September 24, 2011

Napo, the probation officers' union, says courts do not protect those harassed and sentences are too soft Victims of stalking are being failed by the law, according to the first study of its kind, which has resulted in calls for new ways to tackle the crime. A study of 80 cases by Napo, the probation union, concludes that sentences handed down for stalking offences are often too lenient and that the law must be reformed. The publication of the study, which is to be presented to a parliamentary inquiry examining proposals to tackle the crime, comes after the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, told yesterday's Labour conference that the law on stalking needed to be toughened up. Last year there were 120,000 victims of stalking in the UK, 53,000 of those incidences recorded as crimes by the police. Of these, 2% resulted in a custodial sentence, while 10% of cases ended with a community sentence or fine. The remaining cases, according to Napo, appeared to have resulted in no further action being taken. The union said its study, which found that all but one of the 80 perpetrators studied for the report were male and all but one of the victims were female, showed there was a need for the courts to take stalking more seriously. An analysis of the cases revealed that stalking sometimes rapidly escalated from unwanted texting and making telephone calls to victims being followed, wounded or even murdered. Many of the victims featured in the study, which was carried out with the support of the charity Protection Against Stalking (PAS), endured years of abuse as a result of menacing behaviour conducted both in person and online. Significantly, the study found that more than half of the stalking cases followed the breakdown of a relationship that had featured domestic violence. But fewer than 10% of those convicted for stalking offences received any treatment. Those who did were usually counselled for domestic violence, which Napo claimed was an inappropriate response. "The report shows that stalking is a prevalent and very serious crime," said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo. "It can result in women being wounded and murdered. There is ample evidence that behaviour can escalate as perpetrators become more obsessed and dangerous." Examples in the study included a 52-year-old man who was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The offender, who had more than 20 previous convictions and had stalked a woman for 10 years, had made threats to kill, announced a "countdown" to a victim's death and had attempted to pay for her husband's murder. Last week, 22 year-old Shane Webber pleaded guilty to causing his girlfriend, Ruth Jeffery, harassment, alarm and distress. Southampton magistrates court heard that Webber had stalked Jeffery over the internet and had distributed naked images of her to her friends and family. "Stalking is where domestic abuse was 20 years ago and we know first-hand that failure to deal adequately with stalking can result in high-profile tragedies: this is about homicide prevention," said Laura Richards, a criminal behavioural psychologist who is advising the inquiry, and is a spokeswoman for PAS. "Too often PAS hears from victims who have been continually let down and rendered further vulnerable by the criminal justice system. This must change. Not only do stalkers steal lives ? they take lives." Napo warned that prison staff were finding it difficult to treat stalking behaviour because jail sentences were often too short. The union also said courts were failing to request psychiatric assessments, often on the grounds of avoiding cost and delay. "There is urgent need for training programmes to be available generally for perpetrators and for training for criminal justice staff," Fletcher said. "Courts should routinely request risk assessments on victims before bail and sentencing decisions are made. Unless stalking laws are reformed and therefore treated seriously, women will continue to be assaulted, psychologically harmed and even murdered." The study found that only 10 of the 80 stalkers had no previous convictions. Eleven, however, had been convicted of threats to kill, attempted murder, wounding or homicide, and a further 18 had been charged with assault on female victims. In all 47 of the stalkers had three or more convictions. Typical previous offences included breaches of restraining orders, assault, harassment and criminal damage. The study found those convicted of stalking tended to be older than the average offender, with 55% aged over 40, compared with just 20% of all those on probation. Napo called on MPs to create a specific offence of stalking and said harassment charges should be tried in crown courts as well as magistrates courts. Crime Sentencing Prisons and probation Domestic violence Women Jamie Doward © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds