Penal policy takes a regressive turn

Politics 1, Coherent policy 0

So the tabloids have been thrown their red meat. Using crime to shore-up one's political capital is -- after a brief lull -- back in fashion. Penal policy is poised once again to take a regressive turn.

Those in this country who believe in a more rational and humane penal policy have, for several years now, quietly put their faith in the Conservatives. In opposition, a succession of shadow justice ministers carefully crafted a sensible alternative to the policies pursued for over a decade by New Labour -- policies that had sent the prison population rocketing to record levels, while doing little to build public trust in the justice system. The recession meant that the money for expanding the penal estate had run out. The Conservatives, it was pointed out, have a proud record of penal reform, as well as being best placed politically tackle spiralling prison numbers. Think Nixon in China.-

This cautious optimism was reinforced following the election. A new rational approach to penal policy appeared one of the issues that bound Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers together. Ken Clarke took up the helm at the Ministry of Justice and seemed just what was needed -- an experienced street-fighter, who wasn't climbing the pole to higher office, who believed in penal reform and was prepared to defend it. He duly launched his 'rehabilitation revolution' -- a coherent plan to stabilise the prison population (hardly the most radical of policy goals) and cut re-offending rates. The new Labour leader Ed Miliband indicated that he would stop using penal policy as a political football.

This week, Clarke's ambitions have suffered a major blow -- as has the hope of a more rational penal policy. Cameron will try hard to present this as the act of a 'listening' government. His advisors will tick this off as a political triumph. But let us be in no doubt -- in policy terms this is bad news. It is true that Clarke got himself into an embarrassing mess in his handling of remission for rapists who enter early guilty pleas -- and a shame that Miliband could not resist grabbing a short-term political prize. It is not even obvious that greater remission for guilty pleas was ever a defensible or principled way to tackle the crisis in our prisons. There is also no doubt that many of the issues here -- notably what to do about the 6000 plus serious offenders currently serving indeterminate prison sentences -- are difficult, perhaps even intractable -- in policy and political terms. But the government's U-turn had little to do with these policy dilemmas. It was politics, stupid.

The government is now left with a far less credible and coherent plan for cutting prison numbers and reducing re-offending. Nor is it easy to see how it can fill the £130 million hole now created in the Ministry of Justice's budget. We are told that the Ministry of Justice will look for (still more) 'efficiency savings', and that probation budgets may now be under further threat. Is this any way to advance a 'rehabilitation revolution'? David Cameron's decision to wrap the welcome review of indeterminate sentences in a crowd-pleasing promise to get 'tougher' with serious offenders will drive the prison population up. This too will divert more resources from non-custodial measures to reduce crime.

There remain aspects of the government's plans that may make a small dent in what remain appallingly high rates of post-prison re-offending. But they are being launched in what is once again an inhospitable climate, in the face of wider political choices that make it harder still for them to succeed. One wishes the beleaguered Mr. Clarke well. He needs to keep reminding his colleagues that bloated prisons vacuum up scarce resources that can be put to much better elsewhere. Until that point is grasped, measures such as justice reinvestment --- which tackle crime by diverting resources from short-term prison sentences to prevention and rehabilitation programmes in local communities -- will remain stuck at the margins of the penal policy agenda. A report published today by IPPR shows this this to be a more principled and workable way of dealing with the prison logjam.

But the government is not alone in now having serious questions to ask. It is surely a sign of Clegg's current political weakness that he agreed to sign off all this. Liberal Democrat supporters will recall that Clegg entered the last election promising to end the penological folly of short sentences and will rightly be asking what Clegg is up to. What of the Liberal Democrats claim to be moderating the worst excesses of Conservative government? As for Ed Miliband, one wonders how he is feeling today. If he is pleased, he certainly shouldn't be, as his own rapid u-turn was instrumental in bringing Clarke's proposals down and re-heating the penal climate. Having helped create this mess, perhaps Miliband and his justice team can now begin the difficult task of building something better from the ruins.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Re-Designing Justice. Reducing crime through justice reinvestment (IPPR, 2011).

 

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder