Radical change needed to prevent domestic violence and reform offenders

Targeted policing remains the best measure NSW has against serial domestic violence offenders – but there are long-term solutions worth considering, according to an expert.

Western Sydney University senior criminology professor Michael Salter’s work deals with the issue from many perspectives, including women with complex trauma, homosexual men, and African refugees.

One project with Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety examines how offenders come in contact with the system and move through it.

“You start to see how victims, offenders and the kids can get lost,” Dr Salter said.

“It’s completely different is each state because the response has just grown up organically. There’s never been an actual systemic approach to domestic violence.”

Michael Salter

Michael Salter

Dr Salter said each state needs to stop and examine its practices to see whether they are working – something Victoria has been doing since the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

“What we do need is a flexible, adaptive system that maps onto the realities of people’s lives,” he said.

One key issue is the core group of high-risk men who are prone to violence. In NSW, about ten per cent of offenders are responsible for up to 50 per cent of all family violence. They are often unemployed, poorly educated, and dealing with mental illness and substance abuse.

Dr Salter said these men should be targeted by police to get them into prison as often as possible.

“They don’t respond to intervention because they don’t care anymore. They’ve sort of lost hope,” he said.

“It’s not to say that they can’t be changed; they can. But they need to be supported to change.”

NEW MEASURE: NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Walton (pictured in 2006) recently announced the appointment of six  domestic violence liaison positions. Dr Salter believes the NSW government needs to significantly increase funding for primary prevention. Picture: James Alcock

NEW MEASURE: NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Walton (pictured in 2006) recently announced the appointment of six domestic violence liaison positions. Dr Salter believes the NSW government needs to significantly increase funding for primary prevention. Picture: James Alcock

Dr Salter said the current system sets offenders up to fail with a complex array of appointments to keep.

“I’m not particularly sympathetic to offenders but I think we probably underestimate how damaged this group is, in terms of often physical assault in childhood, and long-term exposure to disadvantage, deprivation and humiliation.”

Dr Salter said he understands the desire to punish offenders, but argued the money spent on imprisonment could be invested more efficiently into treatment that would deliver better outcomes.

“NSW spends $1 billion a year on prisons and we really don’t get any return. We spend that money on a system, and then we have to spend money to repair the damage that system does to people.”

He also believes the government needs to establish a policy infrastructure that ensures long-term investment in primary prevention.

There is a national framework called Change the Story, and Victoria has invested in primary prevention for at least 20 years, but other states are yet to follow suit with similar funding commitments.

“There’s a broad policy framework…but what we find in NSW is a lot of interest from the ground up, but not a lot of guidance and not a lot of funding at the policy level,” Dr Salter said.

“It’s a little bit frustrating because the government certainly wants to talk about primary prevention but doesn’t really want to put the work in to coordinate it.”