Stop handing get-out-of-jail-free cards to abusive men

In the United Kingdom, Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes prescribed as an alternative to criminal sanctions are achieving little other than allowing abusers avoid prison.

Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPPs) may have certain uses in the fight to end male violence, but only if they come hand in hand with effective prosecutions and criminal sanctions, writes Bindel [Getty Images]

In 1980, American feminist and social activist Ellen Pence founded a new programme aimed at protecting women from domestic violence in Duluth, Minnesota named the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP). Based on an inter-agency approach in which police, probation services, courts, social services and women’s advocacy projects work together to try and protect victims from ongoing abuse by rehabilitating perpetrators, it soon became the blueprint for addressing domestic violence across the United States.

In a matter of just a few years, similar initiatives, which came to be known as Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPP),  also emerged and became the leading method of addressing domestic violence in the United Kingdom. Today, most domestic abusers in the UK are being given the option of attending DVPPs rather than being processed through the criminal justice system.

Advocates of these programmes argue that since many perpetrators are not even reported to the police let alone brought to the dock and sentenced, these initiatives help hold more violent men to account for their actions and keep more women safe. Furthermore, they insist that these programmes are not in any way replacements for criminal justice sanctions.

After talking to victims, probation officers and even people running DVPPs, however, I am convinced that more often than not these programmes achieve very little other than helping violent men avoid spending time in prison.

I met Davey – a man who completed a 12-week domestic violence intervention programme as an alternative to a possible three-month sentence – after approaching the coordinator of his programme and asking if any of the attendees would be willing to speak with me.

As we sat down in a London cafe, he said he was “glad to get [his] side of the story heard.”

“My wife called the police after I lost my temper and slapped her across the face,” he told me. He claimed that there was no real history of domestic abuse in their relationship and that while he would occasionally lose his temper and throw objects at the wall, he would never throw anything at his wife. He admitted to pushing her on occasion but claimed he never did “anything more extreme”.

I asked why then the police had been called more than a dozen times during the five years they had been together. “The neighbours complained about the noise and she wanted to teach me a lesson and get the police to settle the argument,” he responded. He eventually admitted that he “accidentally” broke his wife’s nose that one time he slapped her.

Still, he claimed that the “course” he attended has taught him “that violence is never the answer and that no man should hit a woman, whatever she has done to provoke him”.

It was clear that even after completing the programme, he was not fully owning up to his actions. He was still under the impression that what he did was not entirely his fault and it was his wife who “provoked” him to be violent. And he was openly stating that the only thing preventing him from harming a woman again was a sense of patriarchal chivalry and nothing more.

As we continued our chat, Davey told me something even more worrying – that he considers it to be perfectly acceptable to have sex with his wife when she is asleep, despite marital rape being criminalised in England and Wales in 1992.

Davey is undoubtedly just one violent man among many who avoided serving time for their violent actions thanks to a domestic violence programme focused on “re-educating” perpetrators rather than ensuring that they cannot continue to harm women.

Many women who have experienced domestic abuse refuse to endorse such programmes, which often serve as get-out-of-jail-free cards for their abusers. They are appalled at the idea of perpetrators of domestic abuse receiving “treatment” and “counselling” for their criminal acts rather than serving time in prison.

Nevertheless, those who support such programmes are convinced that this is the perfect solution to addressing male violence. It seems that they believe, in the absence of a criminal justice system that is capable of efficiently holding abusers to account and protecting victims, it is right to focus all efforts and resources on trying to rehabilitate perpetrators.

Even the UK’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), which is tasked with  independently advising the family courts about what is safe for children and in their best interests, order abusive men who are in custody and access disputes with their partners and former partners to DVPPs. While CAFCASS claims perpetrators attending these two to two-and-a-half-hour long group sessions for six months can make “a real difference” to the lives of all those involved, including children, people working to end male violence are convinced that these programmes provide little benefit to children and women, and serve only to reduce the caseload of courts and save money for the authorities.

Karen Ingala Smith, the CEO of NIA Project, a feminist advocacy initiative committed to ending male violence, for example, is deeply concerned about the “creeping normalisation” of perpetrator programmes.

“One of the first things I noticed about CAFCASS’s information about their DVPP is that it appears to have slipped their notice that intimate partner violence and abuse is largely perpetrated by males upon female partners and children,” Smith told me. “This immediately raises concerns for me about what hope there is of the programme dealing effectively with attitudes feeding male entitlement and control which underpin much domestic abuse.”

Defenders of DVPPs often tell me that the primary aim of such programmes is to  get perpetrators to face up to what they have done. However, there is a large body of evidence pointing to the inefficiency of DVPPs in changing perpetrator attitudes.

In 2015, for example, Project Mirabal  – a multi-site study of domestic violence perpetrator programmes in the UK which includes interviews with 64 white British programme attendees – showed that many domestic abusers refuse to take full responsibility for their actions even after completing a DVPP. According to the study, prior to the course, some 90 percent of the interviewees were attempting to justify their abusive behaviour, and after completing the programme, at least three-quarters of the men continued to make excuses.

The project, which included a survey of 100 women whose partners participated in a DVPP,  also revealed certain successes of such programmes. For example, it showed that just over half of the women who responded to the survey reported feeling “very safe” after the programme, compared with less than one in 10 before it (51 percent compared with 8 percent). But of course, this still means these programmes left almost half of the women surveyed living in fear.

Some victims prefer the DVPP route to criminal prosecution because they do not want their abusive partner, or the father of their children, in prison. They merely want them to change and meet their household and parenting responsibilities. But it is difficult to see how attending short, weekly group sessions for just six months can undo a lifetime of patriarchal conditioning underpinning the violent, abusive and coercive actions of men who abuse their partners and children. As research shows, DVPPs are in no way a golden ticket to ending male violence.

Only prosecutions and sanctions can deter violent men and truly protect victims. Authorities in the UK, however, are failing women who survive male violence. Rates of reporting domestic abuse to the police are increasing but only a third of these reports are ending in an arrest. Meanwhile, the number of referrals from the police to the prosecution services for charging are declining. Public bodies are increasingly passing on the responsibility of dealing with domestic violence and preventing future abuse to DVPPs to the detriment of victims.

DVPPs may have certain uses and advantages, but only if they come hand in hand with effective prosecutions and criminal sanctions. If authorities are serious about addressing male violence, they should stop handing get-out-of-jail-free cards to perpetrators only because it is convenient.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.