Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Clarke speaks sense on prison policy, but Howard should be heard, too.

Malcolm Hewson is not the only Liberal Democrat welcoming Kenneth Clarke's seeming conversion to Liberal Democrat policy on sentencing. However, Clarke's justification is largely economic. Amol Rajan suggests that Clarke believes in the abolition of short sentences on principle, and that his stress on the money saved is merely to get the policy past the Conservative Thatcherites. I'm not so sure. There was an earlier example of a liberal policy being followed merely for its impact on the Treasury, with no attempt to address its social implications: "care in the community", which not only freed people from Victorian asylums, but also freed the asylum buildings themselves for development, as well as saving expensive staffing.

The result was, as a prison officer, " frankspence", points out in a comment to the  Amol Rajan opinion noted above, "many patients being ejected into society. They were institutionalised and unable to function and consequently many committed minor offences". He continues that they "discovered that Prison was not so different from the institutional life in a Psychiatric Unit and became recidivists, all minor stuff but recidivists all the same. There are still huge numbers of mentally ill inmates in Prison."

There is a saying attributed to GBS (though I have been unable to find it) that prisons are full of those who should never have been there in the first place and those who should never be let out. Liberal Democrats have rightly been concerned about the first category, but we should also pay attention to the latter. Michael Howard said in his Middlesbrough 2004 speech: " persistent, violent and dangerous criminals should be sent to prison. The public needs protection from them." Jack Straw explicitly endorsed this view as justification for his prison policy. But, because far too many people have been put inside on short sentences, especially under Labour, the prison authorities feel compelled to release more dangerous convicts early, or move them to open prisons.

Interestingly, the sentence before the one already quoted from Howard's speech reads: "Cautions should be for first time offenders - community penalties for less serious crimes." So even the shadow Home Secretary with something of the night about him recognised that there are alternatives to prison.

Supervision of convicts in the community is down to the probation service, but there is no sign that the coalition government is about to reverse the savage cuts started by Labour in 2008/9 and due to be completed in 2012. There is a suggestion that voluntary organisations could fill the gap, but although there are enthusiasts who are willing to donate time and money, for instance to Restorative Justice, these completely voluntary contributions must necessarily be localised, and money will be needed to roll out such schemes across England and Wales.

Rehabilitation inside gaols also implies additional staffing, if only to cut the drug culture. A huge proportion of inmates are illiterate and cannot do basic arithmetic. Correcting this would give them a good chance of getting a job, which, if held down, would virtually guarantee going straight (see Digby Jones' "Comment is Free" general election contribution). But this could not be achieved if short- and medium-term spending cuts are applied to prisons.

My conclusion is that overall cuts in the prison population will not be possible immediately. The reduction in the number of short-term detainees will be balanced by the number of those serving out their proper tariff. To be effective, punishment and correction outside prison will need additional resources. Though there should be savings towards the end of this parliament, they will only be achieved if the prison and probation services are ring-fenced like the NHS for the next two or three years.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

Tom Brake MP has commented: “Stopping vast numbers of people being locked up for non-violent crimes on short sentences was a key Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment.

“The Labour Government liked to talk tough on crime while reoffending rates in this country rose sky-high. We know that short-term prison sentences don’t reduce reoffending or cut crime.

“Liberal Democrats believe that criminals should be caught and punished, but they should also be set back on the straight and narrow. Prison places should be for violent criminals not first time petty offenders.

“Labour spectacularly mismanaged our prison system. The Government’s decision to review the number of short sentences is a welcome first step to getting it right."