New domestic abuse sentencing guidelines could see tougher penalties - MPs

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Proposed new sentencing guidelines for domestic abuse cases could see harsher punishments handed out for the crimes, a Commons report suggests.

MPs said there is likely to be some "inflationary" impact on penalties as a result of the draft guidance published earlier this year.

It comes at a time when the prison population is under the spotlight, with ministers facing calls to cut the numbers behind bars amid rising levels of violence and self-harm.

Prison population in England and Wales
(PA graphics)

As of Friday, there were 85,469 people in jail in England and Wales, which is 1,090 below the "useable operational capacity" of the estate.

The population has almost doubled since the early 1990s and remained around the mid 80,000s mark in recent years.

In March the Sentencing Council published a consultation document setting out proposed new guidelines for courts when determining punishments for individuals convicted of offences involving domestic abuse.

The guidance covers all crimes occurring within a domestic context, such as assault or sexual offences.

In addition, the Council also published draft guidelines for "intimidatory" offences including harassment, stalking and so-called "revenge pornography" cases.

The Council said at the time that the guidelines themselves are not expected to have a significant effect on the types or levels of sentence given.

Publishing a report on the proposals, the Commons Justice Committee said it supports a shift in emphasis towards treating domestic abuse offences as "particularly serious".

The committee's assessment said: "While the Council does not intend that the guideline will shift sentencing patterns, we consider that seeking to ensure that domestic abuse and intimidatory offences are treated particularly seriously is likely to have an inflationary influence on sentencing.

"We have considered whether signalling the gravity of such offences warrants a potential increase in resources for imprisonment and we believe it does.

"As our predecessor Committee has noted in response to consultations on previous guidelines, resources for the delivery of community and custodial sentences are finite and already stretched.

"The Ministry of Justice must make provision for additional prison and probation resources were the guidelines to have this result."

A short film for victims of domestic abuse by @rightsofwomen filmed with us at the Central Family Court #IDEVAWhttps://t.co/XhgtAf9VL6pic.twitter.com/On8sGd5EjC

-- Ministry of Justice (@MoJGovUK) November 25, 2016

The Sentencing Council's approach to devising the guidance was broadly welcomed by the committee.

Its chairman Bob Neill said: "These important guidelines are particularly complex due both to the nature of the offences concerned and their relationship to numerous other offences."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "Domestic abuse shatters lives and destroys families. It is right that our courts recognise this and that punishments properly fit these abhorrent crimes.

"While prison numbers can fluctuate, we will always have enough places for offenders committed to custody by the courts. We have a robust set of plans in place to manage changes, including modernising the estate and building new accommodation."