Trust your instinct.
That is the advice of campaigners to help individuals protect themselves against stalkers. It can be very difficult for people to judge at what point irritating but harmless behaviour crosses the line into stalking, but the hope is that by trusting their instincts, particularly if they have felt frightened by another person's persistent attentions, individuals targeted by stalkers will contact the police.
Many are doing so. The Herald reveals today that 1400 cases of stalking have been reported in Scotland since a new law on the crime was introduced in 2010. The change was made because previously stalking had been prosecuted as a breach of the peace which was required to have a "public element". Social media has increased the opportunities for harassment by text message and by email, behaviour that is often private, and that now falls within the scope of the law. That people are coming forward and reporting the offence is heartening, though there are thought to be many who still do not.
Campaigners are pleased by the number of cases proceeding to prosecution - 1046 out of 1431 - but have voiced concerns about the relatively low rate of conviction. Fewer than one third of people reported have been convicted.
Why is the rate not higher? The figure of 462 convictions does not tell the whole story, as the Crown Office points out, as 315 prosecutions are still under way. As it stands, those 462 convictions out of 1046 cases coming to court represents a 44% rate of successful prosecutions, which will almost certainly rise as the ongoing cases are concluded, but most likely the rate will still lag behind that of some other crimes. According to Scottish Government statistics, 87% of crimes and offences that came to court in 2011/12 resulted in the charges being proven, but some crimes had a much higher conviction rate than others. For instance, 78% of robbery charges were proven and 83% of vandalism cases. Some offences by their nature are more straightforward than others when it comes to making the case in court, of course. Clearly non-conviction does not mean that a guilty person is "getting off". People are sometimes prosecuted for offences they did not commit. It would be unrealistic to expect a 100% conviction rate.
However, a lower than expected conviction rate will always ring alarm bells. It would appear, as MP Sandra Osborne says, that the lower rates for stalking are in common with those of crimes of violence against women. More convictions would not only bring peace to more victims, but encourage others to report the crime.
Politicians, police and prosecutors are taking stalking seriously, as they should, but a review of the way it is investigated and prosecuted might help shed some light on the current conviction rate. Being stalked can be a deeply distressing, indeed terrifying, experience. The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey for 2010-11 found that one in 20 adults had experienced some form of stalking in the previous year, with both men and women being targeted. Stalkers must learn that there is nowhere to hide.
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