Oliver Harvey 7.45am
Ken Clarke’s vital reforms to Britain’s justice system are in danger of being permanently sidelined.
Earlier this year, the Justice Secretary was forced to drop his plea bargaining reforms after describing some rape cases as ‘less serious’ than others during a BBC radio interview. Then August’s appalling series of riots seemed to have firmly ruled out any possibility of sentencing reform, prison population reduction or the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ seeing the light of day.
Earlier this month, the repeal of greater sentencing powers for magistrates - introduced towards the end of the last Labour government - dropped out of the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill (Lapso) after it was opposed by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.
None of this, however, has altered the arguments for justice reform. Unless we are to continue living with public disorder and criminality at least part of the solution must be a proactive approach to rehabilitation and a focus on non-custodial sentences.
Britain has one of the highest prison populations in the world, currently edging towards the 100,000 mark and almost doubling over the last fifteen years. This has been credited by successive Home Secretaries from Conservative and Labour governments as the main cause of falling crime rates.
In fact, this suspicious cross-party consensus tells us that the views of Home Secretaries move in lockstep with the police. Different metrics measure different crime rates in different ways. A cleaner statistic is this: over half of Britain’s current offenders have already served custodial sentences.
We are operating, at a colossal cost to taxpayers, a revolving door for criminals to return to communities and to reoffend, with all the social and economic costs that entails.
One response with considerable public appeal is simply to lock offenders up for longer. An arch proponent of this idea is Peter Hitchens, with whom to converse on the subject is to tread the pages of a Charles Dicken’s novel.
While superficially attractive, it is simpleton’s logic. There is a fair case to be made for longer sentences for heinous crimes (murder, rape, firearms offences), but jailing burglars for decades both bears the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime and is a spectacular waste of money when alternatives are considered.
First, expand and improve the use of non-custodial sentences and put more emphasis on rehabilitation. As Ken Clarke has argued, non-custodial sentences must be made more ‘demanding,’ with tougher terms, more visible punishments and higher touch probation.
Punishing first time offenders and those convicted of relatively minor offences within the community is sensible as it prevents the ‘career criminalisation’ process which contact with hardened criminals in jail provides, and it gives an opportunity to offenders to get their life back on track.
Uncomfortable as it may be for some to admit it, an alarming proportion (90 per cent) of offenders have mental health problems or suffered childhood abuse. Often a lifetime of crime can be preventable by appropriate early intervention.
Second, the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ must be made to work. Literacy programmes, a ‘working week’ for prisoners and lowering the barriers for ex-cons to find work are part of the solution. Enlightened prison regimes can have spectacular results, but too often the success of rehabilitation is left to the inclination and resources of individual prison governors.
As Paddy Scriven, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, has pointed out, rehabilitation is most successful with prisoners on longer jail terms. Short custodial sentences can have the effect of exposing minor offenders to hardened criminals, cutting them off from their communities while offering their victims only the briefest of respites. Short sentences are also expensive. In the vast majority of cases they should be scrapped, while resources should be concentrated on prisoners serving terms greater than one year.
Last year’s Green Paper - Breaking the Cycle - addressed many of these points. There is a broad consensus among prison governors and probation officers, a surprising fact considering Ken Clarke’s aim to cut substantially the prison budget.
Yet in the rush for politicians to be seen as ‘tough on crime,’ an asinine soundbite if there ever was one, the opportunity to get our justice system working again is slipping away.