Ken Clarke enters the riots debate with one dramatic, indisputable statistic. The Justice Secretary writes in today’s Guardian: “Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful.
The riots, he suggests, amount to a renewed case for his rehabilitation revolution. Yet for fear of appearing excessively liberal, Clarke throws plenty of red meat to the right as well. He highlights the government’s plan to introduce tougher community penalties, refuses to condemn the disproportionate sentences handed down by the courts (“the judges have probably been getting it about right”), and baldly refers to the rioters as a “feral underclass”. How such language helps tackle what Clarke rightly calls our “appalling social deficit” remains unclear.
But for all this, Clarke’s message is strikingly different from David Cameron’s blunt call for “zero tolerance”. The two remain irreconcilable. Officially, the coalition still plans to cut more than 2,500 prison places but Cameron has vowed that the government will provide “the prison places necessary that the courts decree.” In the meantime, as the Prison Reform Trust has warned, parts of the system are “becoming human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education.” These are not, to put it mildly, not ideal conditions for Clarke’s justice revolution. But it could take a (prison) riot before Cameron changes course.