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8 June 2011

Ken Clarke ordered to rethink sentencing plans

In the government's latest climbdown, proposals to offer discounted sentences for early guilty pleas

By Samira Shackle

Kenneth Clarke’s controversial plans to reform sentencing in England and Wales may be shelved after he was summoned to a one-on-one meeting with David Cameron yesterday.

The Prime Minister was compelled to act after concern in the Tory backbenches that the Conservatives could lose their reputation as the party of law and order.

The main bone of contention is the proposal to offer a 50 per cent reduction in sentencing for an early guilty plea — up from the current 33 per cent — aimed at reducing the 85,000 jail population and the £4bn prison and probation budget. There is also a question mark over his plans to curb the power of judges to give indefinite sentences.

Clarke — a famously stubborn politician who has previously refused to back down on this matter — has effectively been ordered back to the drawing board. While Theresa May insisted this morning that this latest move was just part of the normal consultation process, it is difficult to see it as anything but an embarrassing climb down for the government.

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This will be particularly galling as the plans, published in a Green Paper last year, initially enjoyed cabinet approval. It was Clarke’s clumsily worded attempt to defend differing sentences for rapists — when he suggested that “serious rape” was distinct from other forms — that crystallised opinion against the plans.

Now, Downing Street wants to drop the idea of discounted sentences, even for less serious criminals. This is an unfortunate knee jerk, to say the least. While there were certainly areas that needed clarification — such as ensuring there was proper sentencing for serious offences — Clarke was right to challenge the orthodoxy that “prison works”.

Doling out prison sentences is a strategy which lacks foresight — of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences in the UK, 60 per cent reoffend. Half of those released from prison reoffend within a year. Non-custodial penalties have a far better record in preventing reoffending. Indeed, research published today shows that many repeat offenders feel a short prison sentence is easier to complete than a community sentence, which some consider more of a punishment.

A second problem with this U-turn is that Clarke will now have to find more than £100m savings from elsewhere in the Ministry of Justice budget. He was hoping to save 3,400 prison places and £130m by 2014-15 by reducing sentences. He has already effectively ended legal aid as we know it with savage cuts of 25 per cent. It is difficult to see where these extra cuts will come from.

With Labour attacking Clarke’s proposals from the right, and the Tory backbenchers up in arms, it is perhaps inevitable that the coalition got cold feet — being seen as “soft on crime” is considered electoral suicide. But having held their nerve for this long, it will be a shame if these essentially sensible proposals are shelved altogether.