Pretrial behaviour change intervention for men charged with domestic violence offences

Noteworthy Practice – Australia

Pretrial Detention Reduction

Remand Domestic Violence intervention

Corrective Services New South Wales, Australia

Context

In 2016 the New South Wales (NSW) Government issued several priorities to public sector agencies to tackle intractable problems such as homelessness, suicide, and recidivism. One of the priorities was to reduce the proportion of domestic violence perpetrators re-offending within twelve months by 5%.

One of the strategies that Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) initiated in response was to partner with Legal Aid NSW to establish a short intervention for inmates on remand who have been charged with domestic violence-related offences.

Problem

Over 11,000 inmates are remanded into NSW custody every year due to bail refusal or inability to meet bail conditions. Remand populations in all jurisdictions across Australia face similar constraints to eligibility and participation in programs.

A significant issue in the implementation of programs for this cohort is the unknown length of time in custody, complicated by legal status and court attendance requirements. 

Galouzis and Corben (2016) found the remand population in CSNSW to be high volume and transient with 22% spending less than one week in custody; 45% less than one month; and, 18% of the cohort spent less than 30 days in custody before being released on bail and did not receive a custodial sentence.

Prior to 2016, NSW inmates on remand received fundamental support services, education, vocational training, and support programs for issues such as substance abuse; however, offence-specific (criminogenic) rehabilitation programs were mostly available to sentenced prisoners only.

The main restriction for inclusion of remand inmates in these programs is that all criminogenic programs in NSW contain an ‘offence mapping’ component – and we cannot compel those on remand to discuss details of their offence while court proceedings are ongoing.

There are also limitations in terms of access and resources for programs when the priority in most of these units and the staff is court-related issues, immediate crises, and mental health issues.

Solution

Given the high turnover of this cohort and limited time in custody, CSNSW modified our existing 40-hour program for domestic and family violence offenders. The program was adapted for a remand population based on evidence for brief interventions.

Participation in the full program (1) has been found to have a positive impact on reducing re-offending (Zhang et. al. 2019).

The Remand Domestic Violence (DV) intervention is a six-session intervention run at selected correctional centres across NSW.

To be eligible for the intervention, men must have a current domestic violence charge (family or intimate partner); and/or a current Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO). Their assessed level of risk of re-offending is not part of the criteria at the remand stage.
 
The intervention focuses on assisting inmates in understanding their legal circumstances specific to domestic violence and providing them with knowledge and skills for healthier relationships. The aims are achieved by exploring the following topics:
 

• Coping – managing emotions
• Change – identifying abuse
• Caring – healthy lifestyle
• Communication
• Choices – action planning

 
The Remand DV program also affords participants the opportunity to understand the importance of an ADVO and provides a forum to ask questions related to these court orders.
 
The experience of our facilitators – and of Legal Aid – was that a very low proportion of Remand DV participants know and understand the conditions of their ADVOs. 

Many are also not aware of the broad range of behaviours that constitute abuse, including financial and cyber abuse. The intervention session covering that topic is often one where participants are most engaged and is very effective when their personal stories come out.
 
Many admit they had poor examples of what a healthy intimate partner relationship or close familial relationship looks like, and having facilitators focus on pro-social role modelling is important.
 

Attendance at the interventions is voluntary, and people can attend as many (or as few) sessions as their circumstances allow. Importantly, the interventions do not require participants to admit guilt or take responsibility for the charges for which they are currently on remand. While domestic violence is discussed, no details of the individual’s charges should be disclosed.

Results
An identified risk to the strategy was that people on remand (or our law enforcement / legal colleagues) would perceive their participation in the program as an admission of guilt. Overwhelmingly, this has not been the case, and the uptake of voluntary participation exceeded our expectations. Since commencement, there have been 5685 individuals who have participated in the intervention.
 
In the last 12 months, even with the impacts of COVID, 549 people have participated in 1844 sessions.
 
The intervention relies on the facilitators’ skills to work with any resistance in the group room. This is done by clearly outlining the limits of confidentiality, the group rules and emphasising qualities of genuineness and empathy.

Facilitators explain that we do not need to understand the details of the charges themselves, but that the skills being discussed in the group – such as effective communication – are universal. Even if a participant maintains their innocence, these skills can help them live a happier, productive life. 

Some facilitators feel the voluntary nature of the intervention is one of the greatest benefits. Incarcerated adults have their autonomy stripped and are highly controlled in the jail environment. 

They’re told when to move, sleep, and eat, that this is their case plan and, usually, that these are the programs they have to do. The Remand DV program empowers people to make the choice to engage in intervention no matter their motivation.
 
People who participate in the intervention receive a Remand DV Letter of Attendance that can be given to the court, and their motivation for participating does not have to be questioned. 

Many of those who volunteer want to show they are being proactive. Their motivation may be extrinsic, but by participating, they are exposed to strategies to build healthier relationships, skills to communicate more effectively, and ways of dealing with life stressors.
 
However, anecdotally, the intervention and people’s willingness to engage with it are very well received by the courts. Evaluation of the benefits of the intervention is currently being scoped with our research partners.
 
Incarcerated adults who had experience with Remand DV often vouch for the intervention and influence other remand inmates to come along to the sessions to get the help they feel is needed.
 
The program feedback forms completed by the participants show gratitude for the program. It is reassuring to know that we are removing barriers to early intervention.
 
If participants are sentenced to a community-based order or a custodial sentence, the intervention allows them to have a better understanding and preparedness for the programs they will be required to participate in, in order to reduce their risk of re-offending.

Note:

(1) This program, EQUIPS Domestic & Family Violence, is part of a suite of five EQUIPS programs that sentenced domestic violence offenders may be required to complete to address all of their criminogenic needs. EQUIPS stands for Explore, Question, Understand, Investigate, Practice & Succeed.

Danielle Matsuo

Danielle Matsuo is the Group Director of Offender Services and Programs, Corrective Services NSW, responsible for over 700 staff who deliver programs and services to people in custody and the community. For the first 12 years of her 23-year career with CSNSW, she worked as a prison psychologist. She is currently completing a PhD considering similarities and differences between men who have committed homicide offences. In her previous role, Danielle was responsible for the development, delivery and ongoing integrity monitoring of all CSNSWs behaviour change programs.

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