By using rape as the example to make the case for bigger sentencing discounts, and by handling his media appearances so catastrophically, Ken Clarke highlighted a proposed change to sentencing policy that might otherwise have received very little attention. The government has tried to close down the controversy by withdrawing the suggestion that men accused of rape could get their sentences halved if they plead guilty early. But the possibility of halving other sentences in return for a guilty plea remains on the table.
The consultation paper in which the sentence-halving proposal first surfaced was published by the Ministry of Justice last December. (Incidentally, the consultation period closed at the beginning of March, so Ken Clarke's suggestion last week that these proposals are still up for consultation seems like a hasty re-think.) The MOJ believes that the present policy of offering one-third sentence discounts in return for guilty pleas is not doing enough to reduce the courts' caseload. The consultation paper says that more than two-thirds of crown court cases end in a guilty plea, but that the pleas are made too late. In 2009, for example, 10,000 guilty please were made at the door of the court ie the last possible moment before trial. So a large proportion of the costs of the trial have already been incurred, not to mention the delay to all cases caused by the large – and increasing – number of cases waiting to be heard.
What is interesting is the leap of reasoning contained in the paper. The availability of a one-third sentence discount for a guilty plea (introduced by the last government) is clearly not working. But the MOJ does not make the obvious proposal: that its availability should be tightened up by restricting it to early pleas only. Instead, it suggests that the discount be increased to 50%, provided the defendant pleads guilty "at the earliest stage."
Ken Clarke didn't have much success in his recent attempts to persuade us that sentence discounts are intended to spare victims the ordeal of a trial. Reading the consultation paper, it's hard to resist the conclusion that the overall objective intention is to cut costs – by reducing court workloads as well as prison places. But a report released by the MOJ less than ten days ago showed that criminals serving short sentences were more likely to re-offend after release than those who served longer sentences for the same crime. It seems astonishing that in the light of that report Ken Clarke thought it feasible to go out and promote the idea of halving sentences in return for guilty pleas. The logical conclusion from the evidence given to him by his department is that prison does work: putting criminals away for longer not only keeps them from committing crime while they're inside, it also makes them less likely to offend later.
On Question Time last Thursday Clarke was outflanked on the right by one-time Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who defended the crime reduction measures adopted by Michael Howard and taken up by David Blunkett. Supporting Ken on the left was Liberty think-tank director Shami Chakrabati, clearly struggling to reconcile her condemnation of rape with her distaste for long prison sentences. Likewise Ken's Liberal Democrat colleagues, who find his views more palatable than the tough-on-crime talk used by the Conservatives before last year's general election.
As Tim has pointed out, the net result is that the gap between Coalition policies and public opinion is growing wider. If Ken Clarke and his team really are going to re-open their consultation paper, it would be a good idea to include some proposals for lengthening sentences and reducing discounts. Not only would that reassure the public, it seems that it would also cut the cost of crime, by reducing reoffending rates. After all, one of the most significant factors affecting court workloads is the huge number of repeat offenders coming back through the system. The fact that Clarke's phone-in nemesis, Gabrielle Brown, was attacked by a known violent offender, starkly reinforces the point.