As Labour’s Great Recession hit, many predicted rising crime. The reality of the last five years has been dramatically different – a record of Conservative success.
The latest Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that crime is now down 25 per cent compared to 2009/10. There are very sound reasons for this: Theresa May’s strong record on policing and Chris Grayling’s determination to maintain the prison population. There are 3,000 more adult male criminals in prison, the average length of prison sentences has risen 13 per cent, and the use of cautions has fallen by one-third.
Fundamentally, this success also goes back more than 20 years to the last Conservative Government, and Michael Howard’s determined view that “prison works”. The prison population has doubled in the two decades since he became Home Secretary and crime has more than halved.
The obvious response to policies that are working should be more of what works. But in his speech yesterday, Nick Clegg offered a very different take. A rising prison population is a failure, he says, and he wants to reverse this “failure”.
Reasonable people might ask why any country or criminal justice system should be judged as failing based on the choice of a certain number of people to commit crimes so serious that they end up in prison. For the Liberal Democrats, it doesn’t seem to matter what those criminals did to get themselves into prison.
Certainly the consequences of softer sentencing don’t seem to matter to them. Clegg said smugly of those who defend tough sentencing: “It’s easy to sound tough. It’s easy to play to the gallery. But it is not always that easy to follow the evidence.”
But just because something is popular with the public – which tougher sentencing emphatically is – hardly means the public is misinformed. Like so many who oppose prisons, it seems as though Clegg cannot intellectually process this idea. They seem to think that if they drop in a few sneers at the Daily Mail taking the opposite view to themselves then their point is proven.
In fact all the evidence is in support of the common sense notion that if you put away serious, repeat offenders they are no threat to the public outside for the duration of their sentence. Even the reoffending rate after release is lower the longer that criminals spend in prison. Let no one doubt the vast majority of prisoners are serious, repeat offenders – almost none are in for a first offence, and half are there after committing at least 15 previous offences.
If any proof were needed of Clegg’s indifference to the evidence, look at his complaints that the prison population is 36,000 higher than in 1994. He adds: “I don’t believe there are 36,000 more dangerous people now than then.”
Maybe, maybe not. But even if one assumes the same number of dangerous people, one might expect a much higher crime rate if you had 36,000 more of them not in prison. Surprise, surprise, there were 19 million crimes in 1995 compared to seven million last year.
This line reveals so much about Clegg’s judgement. Crime has been recorded by police for two centuries in one form or another. How astonishing for Nick Clegg to pick the mid-1990s – the absolute peak of the British crime rate – as the ideal baseline from which to decide sentencing policy.
Just as worryingly, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party seems to be entirely on board with this agenda. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, consistently campaigns on an agenda of sending fewer female criminals and fewer under-21s to prison. Jenny Chapman, Khan’s sidekick in the Shadow Justice Team, and my opponent in Darlington, constantly complains of prison overcrowding.
These are all dog whistles to an extremely well-funded anti-prisons lobby. Prison overcrowding is a long-standing excuse for sending fewer criminals to prison. Indeed, the Prison Reform Trust claims that “the prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994”.
Even if one takes this hype seriously, there are really only two answers: more prisons or more criminals on our streets. We know that Labour don’t want more prison places.
Likewise with Khan’s claims that: “There are far too many women in our prisons today. We need to reduce that.” But female criminals are still criminals. Sentencing data makes clear that the courts already send women criminals to prison far more rarely than male criminals, even accounting for previous criminal history.
There are only a few thousand in prison at any one moment. There is no good reason to seek a large reduction.
Likewise also for younger criminals. Labour plans to raise the age at which the Youth Justice Board kicks in from 18 to 21 – so that more 18, 19 and 20 year old thugs can avoid prison. In a debate last month at my old school in Darlington, Chapman said she backed a voting age of 16.
How bizarre to say that 16 to 20 year olds cannot be treated as adults if they commit crimes…but are also responsible enough to elect a government.
With both the other main parties committed to an agenda of having more serious, repeat offenders on our streets, public safety is at real risk. If Clegg, Khan and Chapman get their way, the law-abiding will suffer more at the hands of criminals who are rightly currently in prison.
The upshot of all this is yet another overwhelming case for a Conservative majority in May.