David Cameron’s speech on Tuesday sounded the death-knell for sentencing reform in UK. Ken Clarke had promised us a ‘revolution’ and what we got was a spluttering false-start, as his plan to reduce the prison population by 3,000 by 2014-5 was vetoed by a prime minister cowed into submission by the vocal ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ brigade. He said it simply and clearly: “we will not reduce the prison population by cutting prison sentences”.
In fact, every single measure Cameron proposed in his speech seemed intent on ensuring that more people are locked up than ever before, and for longer. It is worth quoting directly:
“First, there’d be a greater number of life sentences, including mandatory life sentences for the most serious repeat offenders. I think life sentences are well understood and liked by the public.
Second, instead of serious sexual and violent offenders being released half way through their sentence, we propose they should spend at least two-thirds of that sentence in prison and that such offenders should never again be released early without the parole board being satisfied that it’s safe to let this happen.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that such measures will add to the prison population – indeed, the last proposal in particular looks like a whopper. This could be another one of those moments where a speech cobbled together at midnight by special advisers running scared leads to a major policy shift – and I really can’t see how these promises could be implemented without pushing up the prison population by several thousand. Of course, the analysts in the Ministry of Justice will be looking at this right now, but certainly it would take a very brave person to bet against a continuation of the twenty year trend that has seen the prison population of England and Wales’ prison numbers nearly double.
So this is a u-turn of monumental proportions. From a promise to decrease the prison population by 3,000 we have a near-certain increase – probably of a similar amount. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Coalition (or in reality the Conservatives, as Liberals quietly supported Ken’s radicalism) are not the only u-turners this week. The Labour leadership continues its shameless opportunism – by attacking Clarke’s proposals and claiming some credit for forcing the Coalition’s change of heart. All this when, on his arrival as Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan had more or less endorsed Ken Clarke’s aims of reducing the prison population, saying “As Ed Miliband has said, we won’t accuse the government of being soft on crime just for the sake of it, but we will focus on its ability to bring crime down.” Ahem.
The Coalition is also still trying to pretend that their position will not automatically lead to more people in prison – a “rehabilitation revolution” will reduce crime they say and so prison numbers will “stabilise”. This is, frankly, a delusion. First, the idea that falling crime means a falling prison population is straightforwardly proven wrong by history: crime has been falling across the world since the early 1990s but prison numbers have been soaring. Second, the idea that the best way of reducing crime is by rehabilitation is frankly a nonsense. Reducing prisoner reoffending rates is difficult and costly (only a small proportion of programmes used in prison actually appear to be cost effective). And because only a tiny proportion of those who commit crime are actually in prison at any one time, reducing reoffending by prisoners barely dents overall crime rates. Much better to invest in early interventions or place-based crime prevention schemes. Again, it’s clear that the prison population will be rising over the next few years, not falling.
What does this all mean? Most obviously, the change means that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will not meet it’s budget targets. I’m pretty certain of this, even if it’s still denied by the Coalition. Back in 2010, the MoJ was one of the first departments to promise budget cuts – of 23% in real terms over the spending period. This was ambitious – and the promise was always dependent on Clarke getting continued backing for the 3 major moves that can save MoJ money. First, reform (ie. cuts) of Britain’s legal aid budget; second, court closures; and, third, reductions in the number of people in prison and, therefore, fewer prisons and prison officers. With the third of these gone, there is undoubtedly a shortfall in savings – probably of around £250 million (read 5,000 teachers or police officers).
In addition though, and worryingly, it means that the hopes of implementing a more effective approach to reducing crime in the UK have all but disappeared. There is a finite amount of cash available to governments to reduce crime. The more money spent on prison (which doesn’t have much impact on crime rates) then the less there is available for everything that does cost-effectively reduce crime. Of course, victims need justice and society needs respite from those who behave intolerably. But the reality is that more prison is not tough on crime, it is simply tough on criminals. Being tough on crime means reducing crime rates – which governments can help do, but only if they aren’t spending all their money prison. Those who hoped for reform have been frustrated by the Coalition’s ham-fistedness – and now fear that politicians of all parties will be convinced that sentencing reform has become politically impossible. I hope, for the sake of everyone who wants a lower crime and safer Britain, that this was not the last chance.