Thursday, July 01, 2010

Clarke's break with Tory prison policy provokes anger from right.

Ken Clarke occasionally shows himself as willing to think outside of the traditional Conservative box, and he has done so again in his new role as Justice Secretary.

Kenneth Clarke's pledge to break with the Conservatives' traditional "prison works" philosophy and bring in more community sentences has provoked anger from the right of his party and a warning from criminal justice campaigners that his words must be matched by firm proposals.

In a radical speech on penal reform yesterday, the Justice Secretary set out a new approach which he said would halt the record numbers of criminals being sent to prison in England and Wales.

He said he wanted to introduce a more open sentencing policy and to introduce a pay-by-results system for rewarding successful rehabilitation schemes in the community.

The Tory argument that "prison works" has never actually been borne out by any statistics, but the Tories have long argued that, as long as the prisoner is not on the streets, then they are not committing crimes. This is blatantly true but the rate at which some prisoners re-offend leads many of us to think that there needs to be a rethink about what to do with offenders.

And this is something which the victims of crime appear to want as well.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Lack of money and the wreckage of a crisis-driven policy have come together to concentrate minds. Faced with an economically and socially unsustainable prison population, a sentencing review will allow the Justice Secretary and colleagues to adopt a moderate, informed approach to reform of the justice system."

Dominic Williamson of the Revolving Doors Agency, which works with prisons and the police to reduce reoffending, said that Mr Clarke would need support from across government if he was to achieve his goals.

Owen Sharp, deputy chief executive of Victim Support, said: "Steps to reduce reoffending are welcome. Victims want to see criminals stop committing crime and be rehabilitated. We know that short prison sentences are sometimes not the best way to achieve this and our research shows that victims of non-violent crime are receptive to community and other punishments if they work."
This is where the Liberal Democrats could become very useful within this coalition, as the right wing of the Conservative party have never really trusted Ken Clarke, and are unlikely to support him over this.

Tory backbenchers reacted angrily to Mr Clarke's comments. Speaking in the Commons, Philip Davies warned that the Justice Secretary was out of step with ordinary people who had voted for the Tories.

"Lots of Conservative supporters, whether they be in Parliament or voters, will feel very disappointed by this announcement," he said.

Michael Howard, the Conservative former home secretary, told BBC Radio 4 that he remained unconvinced by the speech: "The prison population has gone up and crime has continued to fall. Short-term offenders are sent to prison because that's what the judge or magistrate thought was appropriate. This is something that the courts take a great deal of care over."

Jack Straw finds himself on the side of the Tory right wingers in attacking Clarke for his proposals, but I think Clarke's points are very valid.

Mr Clarke, who is carrying out a review of sentencing policy, described the current 85,000 prison population in England and Wales as "astonishing" and questioned whether it delivered value for money for taxpayers.

Keeping a prisoner in jail costs an average £38,000 a year – more than sending a boy to Eton – but often did no more than produce "tougher criminals" and introduce petty offenders to hardened felons, he said.

"There are some nasty people who commit nasty offences. They must be punished, and communities protected. My first priority is the safety of the British public," he said. "But just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England."

Clarke is seeking to rethink something which clearly isn't working. Straw should be ashamed that he has joined in with the right winger Tories, determined to insist that the government should keep going with a system which we can all see is not working.

I hope the Lib Dems give Clarke the backing which it appears that Labour are going to withhold.

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