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7 December 2010

Clarke is right: prison doesn’t work

The Justice Secretary is right to challenge a system that has made reoffending rates soar.

By George Eaton

Ken Clarke’s decision to overturn decades of “prison works” orthodoxy was never likely to pass without dissent, and the Tory right has provided plenty this morning. The Conservative MP Philip Davies attacked the Justice Secretary’s plans on Radio 5 Live and, in an ominous warning to David Cameron, urged the Prime Minister to remember that he is “also in coalition with the Conservatives”.

He said:

We can’t have the tail wagging the dog as far as the coalition is concerned. The Conservatives make up five-sixths or four-fifths of the coalition, and you know, the Prime Minister ought to remember that he is also in coalition with the Conservatives.

The deficit reduction imperative means that dissent from the right has so far been muted. Cameron has projected himself as a quasi-war leader, even channelling Lord Kitchener in his conference speech (“Your country needs you”). Conservatives, more than most, are susceptible to such rhetoric. But, on prison reform, the Tory right may finally have found its voice.

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Yet, whatever his party’s backbenchers may fear, Clarke’s plan owes more to pragmatism than it does to liberalism. Britain can no longer afford to detain ever higher numbers of prisoners in the mythical belief that this will reduce crime. In reality, it is excessive use of short sentences that has led to Britain’s appalling recidivism rate. At present, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend.

Nor should this come as a surprise. As Clarke has pointed out before: “Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come outdrug-dependent. And petty prisoners can meet up with some new hardened criminal friends.”

Clarke’s opponents may point out that crime has fallen (which they rarely acknowledge in other circumstances) as the prison population has risen, but a correlative relationship is not the same as a causal one.

As Clarke argued in his Mansion House speech last night:

There is not and never has been, in my opinion, any direct correlation between spiralling growth in the prison population and a fall in crime . . . Crime fell throughout most of the western world in the 1990s. Crime fell in countries that had and still have far lower rates of imprisonment than ours.

We can never know for sure, but it seems at least as plausible that the fall in crime was due to strong economic growth and high levels of employment. The corollary of this is that the coalition may struggle to reduce crime as the economy stagnates and unemployment rises.

Clarke’s justice revolution could take years to bear fruit. It will also depend on the success of an untested payment-by-results system, aimed at attracting private and voluntary groups to the probation system.

But, whatever its risks, Clarke’s plan is a necessary departure from an approach that has failed on almost every count. On this occasion, there really is no alternative.