Penal policy takes a regressive turn

Politics 1, Coherent policy 0

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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).