Conservative candidates across the country promised in our election manifesto that we would be tough on crime, increase the prison population to 96,000 by 2014 and that “anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.” Kenneth Clarke has abandoned these Conservative pledges and instead adopted the Liberal-left wing orthodoxies that society will be better served by letting more criminals walk the streets and that the offender is more important than the victim of crime.
The main purposes of prison are to actually punish the criminal, protect the public and achieve justice for the victims of crime, not to rehabilitate. However, the Government are a million miles away from public opinion on this issue. Indeed, an IPSOS Mori poll in 2007 found that only 9% of the public thought that ‘too much re-offending’ was one of the most important crime-related issues.
This is not to say that whilst in prison we should not try to rehabilitate criminals, but why does the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ have to occur in the community? For far too long we have had a sterile debate based on whether you are in favour of prison or in favour of rehabilitation – why not have rehabilitation whilst in prison, modelled on the TBS system that has been operating in Holland for over 80 years and has achieved re-offending rates as low as 8 per cent.
Another central tenet of the Sentencing Paper is the desire to reduce the number of people in prison by 3,000, by cutting the number of short-term custodial sentences and increasing the number of community sentences. This is based on a myth that too many people are currently sent to prison when in fact the truth is quite the opposite. Britain only has 12 people sent to prison for every 1,000 recorded crimes compared with 33 in Ireland and 48 in Spain. The Government’s policy is also based on a premise that it is relatively easy to be sent to prison, again quite the reverse. In 2009, 2,980 burglars and 4,677 violent criminals with 15 or more previous convictions, STILL were not sent to prison and criminals with more than 100 previous convictions who came before the courts were more likely NOT to be sent to jail.
Again, when the public were polled for the Yorkshire Post on 14th September 2010 and asked ‘should more burglars be jailed for longer?’, an overwhelming 90% said yes. In fact, it seems that even the Secretary of State for Justice himself disagrees with his own policy of arbitrarily cutting the prison population. He stated at the 2010 Prison Governors Association conference: “I join all the criticisms of mad target cultures across the entire public service.”
Behind his misguided approach is a belief that community sentences are more cost effective and more successful at reducing re-offending than short-term prison sentences. In fact, a Home Office survey in 2000 asked offenders who were about to start a prison sentence, how many crimes they had committed in the previous year. The average was 140 (257 for those on drugs) at a typical cost of £2,000 each. That works out at £280,000 a year per criminal (in comparison to Clarke’s estimated £38,000 a year per prison place). The myth that community sentences reduce re-offending has been dispelled by the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics. In 2008 offenders who had completed a community sentence committed a quarter of a million crimes in the 21 months following their sentence, 1,500 of which were serious offences including murder, rape and robbery.
Ken Clarke has attempted to reform the criminal justice system previously when he was Home Secretary. He ensured that the prison population remained low, whilst the crime rate soared. In 1992 the number of recorded offences was 5,592,000, more than 12 times the total in 1950. Under Michael Howard’s ‘prison works’ regime, sentences were tougher and longer with dramatic results; for the first time since the end of the Second World War the crime rate began to fall significantly. At a time when prison population is at its peak, the British Crime Survey (BCS) estimated that during 2009/10 there were 9.6 million offences – the lowest level since the BCS was introduced in 1981. The numbers speak for themselves.
The bottom line is that prison CAN work. I agree with Ken Clarke about the importance of a work ethic in prisons, sending foreign national prisoners home and re-directing those with serious mental health problems into effective treatment programmes. However, I think more could be done to incentivise prisoners whilst serving custodial sentences; electricity to cells could be switched off during the working day so that prisoners cannot lounge about in their cells watching TV, Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection could be improved and automatic release halfway through sentences could be replaced with the Danish system of earning the right for parole. In 2009, 30 per cent of Danish prisoners were refused parole altogether, which the Danes believe is one of the most important factors in maintaining a re-offending rate of only 26 per cent.
To conclude, the primary role of the criminal justice system should be about achieving justice, not finding the cheapest alternative to sentencing or reducing the number of people in prison. The public need to feel protected, the perpetrators need to know they will be punished effectively and the victims need to feel that justice has been done. I fear that the current Government’s policy runs the risk of achieving none of these aims. The Conservative Party has always been the Party of law and order. Ken Clarke is in danger of single-handedly losing this reputation for the Conservative Party, but even more importantly making thousands more people the victims of crime.