By Sarah Stafford
A father of a teenage girl has recently expressed outrage that the man convicted of sexually assaulting his daughter and previously convicted of rape, was released from prison without his family being informed. But what measures can be implemented to inform and safeguard victims where offenders are either given custodial or probation supervised sentences?
I spoke to Gillian Montgomery, Assistant Director and Victims Lead at the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), about the benefits and limitations of victim information schemes.
“I don’t know the specifics of this case,” Gillian said, “But if victims are not registered to the information scheme, an offender can be released without them knowing, it’s as harsh as that. Our remits are confined by legislation”
The Victim Information Scheme seeks to ensure that victims receive information about what it means when someone is sentenced to an Order which requires supervision by the Probation Board.
The Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme is available to any victim where the offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment for more than six months. The schemes are co-located within the Victim Information Unit, overseen by the PBNI.
Enrolment on the information schemes is voluntary, with the onus on the victim to register. I asked Gillian about the implications of this,
“The PBNI provided evidence to the Justice Committee a number of years ago about the restrictions of legislation and victims being expected to register at such a difficult time. The repercussions are, if people don’t have the information, they can’t prepare.”
In 2017/2018, there was a 42 percent increase in registrations for the Victim Information Scheme from the previous year,
“Active steps have been taken to increase enrolment,” said Gillian. “Online registration was introduced last November. It’s more accessible for victims and available irrespective of the offence.”
She added, “We write to every victim where there is a community sentence involved. There needs to be a balance in respecting the victim’s views and rights and letting them know the option is there. It’s important to raise the profile of the schemes using the media, website, victim and witness steering groups.”
Research in 2005 undertaken by PBNI that looked at how the scheme might operate, found that victims felt vulnerable, unsupported and had little knowledge of the role of PBNI. I asked Gillian how the establishment of the Victim Information Unit has developed to meet the needs of victims?
“Colocation of the schemes ensures the seamless transfer of information from custody to community. We work with the specific needs of victims and signpost to Women’s Aid, Nexus, Support After Murder and Manslaughter, etc.”
A Specific Enhanced Combination Order has been rolled out in a number of courts as a direct alternative to short custodial sentences.
It’s a community sentence which requires offenders to participate in victim-focused work. Restorative work is also carried out if the offender and victim are both willing.
Gillian added, “Restorative practices can be very positive for victims.
“One case study involved a mother whose daughter was killed by dangerous driving and who chose to engage in an indirect mediation process with the offender and a PBNI victim liaison officer.
“She was able to have questions answered that weren’t answered in court. It was raw and painful but helped her deal with issues about the death.”
How are the schemes measured in terms of victim impact?
“A register check is kept internally and audited monthly. The Criminal Justice Inspectorate are due to undertake an inspection on care and treatment of victims which will look at it more widely.”
As of August this year, 1,709 victims have been provided with a service by the Victim Information Scheme.