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14 October 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:47am

What’s going on with the Tories and sentencing?

Their “law and order” agenda exposes a desperate party in campaign mode.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Briefings ahead of the government’s Queen’s Speech – where it lays out the policies it wants to introduce in the next session – focus on “law and order”.

Although the speech has yet to be made, we know that at the very least the government is trying to frame its legislative agenda around being “tougher” on crime.

There’s been talk of harsher penalties for foreign national offenders attempting to return after being deported, and longer sentences for perpetrators of serious and violent crimes.

With the likelihood of an imminent general election, it’s fair to assume that Boris Johnson wants to campaign on these policies in a manifesto rather than entertain any hope of his minority government carrying them through parliament.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel has been gearing up for this theme with her increasingly hardline stance. She’s said the UK has been a “soft touch on foreign criminals for too long”, that she wants people to “literally feel terror” at the thought of breaking the law, and warned criminals “we are coming after you” at her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, where she declared her party “the party of law and order once again”.

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What we know so far about the new proposals is that violent and sexual offenders will have to serve a minimum two-thirds of their sentence (instead of half), before becoming eligible for early release, and maximum sentences for foreign citizens who return after offending and being deported will be “drastically increased” from six months.

Critics see these proposals as an appeal to voters rather than an attempt to create sensible policy. Indeed, prison reformers warn against hastily increasing sentences without adequate evidence, because this approach can take away prisoners’ hope and hinder rehabilitation.

Prisons are also critically overcrowded and have been underfunded since 2010. Straining their populations further could take conditions for prisoners and officers to breaking point.

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While the move is a rhetorical step-change, this direction is a big departure from the reformist tenure of previous justice secretary David Gauke. His time at the department was spent building an evidence base for “smarter sentencing”, finding that rehabilitation, more robust community sentences and focusing on a stronger probation system was an effective defence against reoffending and overcrowding.

Scrapping short sentences was his big ambition. The current Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, who announced the tougher sentencing plans last month, was prisons minister under Gauke and was expected to follow in his reformist footsteps. The next logical policy step for him would have been following through with Gauke’s proposal to scrap prison sentences under six months.

Although short sentencing is a different policy area from longer sentences for more serious crimes, the change in focus exposes how far the Conservative Party is willing to depart from its former image and agenda to enter campaign mode. The jury’s out on whether this will work come the election – but it’s certainly unlikely to work for the prison population.