Let’s not join the Tories in going soft on sentencing, says Nick Keehan

Ken Clarke played the hard man at the Tory conference yesterday. Prisoners will work a full forty hour week, he told them. “A regime of hard work” will teach them a lesson. It was what they wanted to hear.

He didn’t tell them that, under his watch, a wind of change has swept through the ministry of justice. No longer is there talk of ‘getting tough’ on ‘local crooks’. Instead, the ministry has taken to promoting the positive role that offenders are playing in their communities.

‘Where would we be without offenders?’ someone who reads MoJ press releases might ask. School children in Zambia would be using dangerous paraffin lamps (‘Offenders help students in Africa’, 14 June), and people in Wales would be having trouble remembering both Princess Diana (‘Offenders create fitting memorial to Princess Diana’, 31 August) and the 142 miners killed in the explosion at Old Black Vain Colliery at Risca in 1860 (‘Offenders uncover lost memorial to miners’, 29 September).

Even worse, one woman in east London would be without her handbag, had not a group of offenders doing community payback been there to chase her mugger and reclaim it (‘Offenders to the rescue as woman mugged’, 13 July). This is how the big society will work.  Police numbers will be cut and offenders, no longer crowded out by the big state, will step in and tackle crime themselves. ‘More offenders on the street’ is the pledge (‘Revolving door of crime and reoffending to stop says Clarke’, 30 June).

This new attitude to sentencing has gone down reasonably well within the Labour ranks.  Jack Straw came out in defence of the old approach, but otherwise Ken Clarke’s ‘prison doesn’t work speech’ on June 30 was welcomed by progressives. Here at Uncut, Tom Copley was unhappy that Clarke was on the other side and Nick Palmer didn’t think he really meant it, but both agreed that Clarke was right. An Uncut editorial meanwhile argued that Clarke’s views being right was less important than them being unpopular and providing a useful stick with which to beat the government.

Unfortunately, as Ed Miliband made clear in his conference speech, this is not how the new generation will do things.  Calling the secretary of state for justice soft on crime simply because he sees reducing the number of people in prison as an end in itself without reference to levels of crime is old generation politics.

In general terms, Ed is right: we shouldn’t oppose the government for opposition’s sake. In the case of the government’s stance on sentencing, however, this does not apply: the new position is not just bad politics, it is also bad policy.

The government’s plan for a review of sentencing is based on two premises. The first is that there are too many people in prison. The basis for this assertion is a comparison between the UK’s rate of imprisonment in relation to total population and that of other European countries. But this is simply the wrong comparison to make, since it doesn’t take into account different levels of crime between countries. In fact, the ratio of prisoners to recorded crimes for England and Wales is below average for the EU. The ratio of prisoners to convictions is also below average, with Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Norway, amongst others, all having a higher number of prisoners in proportion to convicted criminals than England and Wales. The high rate of imprisonment in the UK relative to total population is a reflection of the higher level of crime in the UK relative to other EU countries.

The governmen’s second premise on sentencing is that prison, particularly short-term sentences, doesn’t work. In relation to rehabilitation of offenders, this is largely true. By and large, convicted criminals sentenced to short-term prison sentences are just as likely to offend after being released as they were before they were sent to prison. However, this only tells half of the story. The other half is that, in terms of rehabilitation, the evidence that anything else works much better is inconclusive.

A 2006 systematic review (pdf) of the evidence on the effects of custodial versus non-custodial sentences found that there was no significant difference in the rates of re-offending between the two types of sentence. While a majority of the evidence reviewed pointed to non-custodial sentences being more effective at reducing re-offending, the effects of this decreased as the methodological strength of the trials increased. Essentially, the more a trial was able to control for other potential factors which might increase a person’s likelihood of re-offending, the smaller the effect of the type of sentence on re-offending was found to be.

Admittedly, there is a wide body of evidence showing a range of interventions which can be effective in reducing re-offending. However, none of these interventions offers a magic bullet.  The most effective interventions are generally able to reduce re-offending by 10-20 per cent. In reality, this means that for every ten people who would go on to re-offend before receiving a particular treatment, eight or nine of them will still go on to re-offend after receiving that treatment.  While these interventions could be said to work, they don’t do so in the way that most people would understand the term ‘work’. And certainly not to the extent that the public would be willing to forego the effects of prison in terms of deterring, punishing and incapacitating offenders.

Of course, under the present circumstances it would be difficult to afford the continual building of evermore prison places. Then again, it would also be difficult to afford the sort of targeted and tailored treatment programmes that could have any drastic impact on re-offending. This does not mean that we should support a reduction in the number of people in prison, unrelated to a reduction in crime, as an end in itself, or that we should pretend that prisons are overcrowded because they are filled with people whose offences don’t warrant them being there. The government is already using the need for cuts as cover for imposing ideological policies on the country that would be unacceptable to the public in other circumstances. I see no reason why Labour should join them when it comes to prisons.

Nick Keehan works in Parliament.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply