Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Prison Works?

Once upon a time the Conservative line on crime was that "Prison Works". Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997 and subsequently Tory leader before Cameron, coined the phrase at his party conference in 1993. Since then the prison population in England has almost doubled both under both major parties.

In the election campaign the coalition partners took contrasting approaches to Criminal Justice. The Liberal Democrats' most striking policy was to introduce a presumption against short prison terms on the bases that these put pressure on capacity, could be better dealt with by alternatives to custodial sentences and that prisoners in such a situation do not benefit from rehabilitation programmes. The Conservative policy, while more nuanced than previously, was still very much that of "Prison Works".

Fast-forward two months and the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has began to lay out the new government's approach as outlined in the Coalition Programme for Government. The harsh language of yesteryear has been replaced by a focus on developing programmes to reduce recidivism.

The plans draw on Cameron's "Big Society" idea with the outsourcing of programmes designed to reduce the number of ex-prisoners who re-offend and Liberal Democrat ideas on restorative justice and Neighbourhood Justice Panels. Sentencing policy will be subject to a review which will focus on its effectiveness as a deterrent, as punishment, as a means of protecting the public and - crucially - preventing re-offending.

Most significant today was Clarke's tone and his focus on the "revolving door" created by the current system. While the Conservative manifesto had included a commitment to increase capacity if required, Mr Clarke was critical of the growth in prison numbers. Of course, he has gone through a revolving door himself - prior to Mr Howard and the doubling of prison numbers it was he who was Home Secretary!

Unusually, crime and punishment did not feature largely in the election campaign. It didn't feature in the initial Coalition Agreements. It is still, however, a hugely important area and one which has often been used to pursue populist policies. In this regard it is an area where the Liberal Democrats have been able to temper this tendency and to prevent the government from pandering to its right wing - and to the right wing press.


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