Ken Clarke’s not wrong on prisons; he just doesn’t mean it, says Nick Palmer

The response to Ken Clarke’s recent speech has been bemusement all round, and no doubt the old stager likes it that way.

The right has always argued for locking more people up, led by the tabloids and urged on by David Cameron and others during the campaign. How pathetic that Labour only added 20,000 prison places in 13 years. How disgraceful that we were letting some prisoners out early because of overcrowding. Why not use prison ships? Army camps? Offshore islands?

Meanwhile, the left has long been uncomfortable with Labour’s record on this. How disgusting that we were pandering to the Daily Mail. How appalling that we had the highest imprisonment rate in Europe. Why weren’t we rehabilitating prisoners instead of having them fester in jails?

Moreover, the left-wing view received solid endorsement from the all-party Justice Select Committee. I co-authored the 2009 “Justice Reinvestment” report, which studied international precedent and concluded that short sentences are worse than useless and using the same money to improve supervision during probation would achieve much better results.

So Ken Clarke’s speech is excellent as far as it goes, offering a left-of-centre analysis of a longstanding controversy. Moreover, the Daily Mail is furious, so it must be good.

But there’s a snag. He is not actually proposing to replace short-term imprisonment with a radical improvement in rehabilitation and supervision. He is principally proposing to save money. And while the evidence supports the view that probation with extensive support and supervision does reduce reoffending, that’s not what we’ve got.

What we have today is a probation system stretched to the limits, with only ex-offenders seen as “high risk” given more than the occasional brief encounter with a probation officer. Turning 20,000 ex-offenders onto the street with this token supervision is not going to do anything to reduce reoffending. On the contrary, it risks discrediting the whole concept of prison reform if a crime wave results.

Not that Clarke is silent on probation. He proposes to move towards farming it out to private companies and the third sector, with incentives for companies who bring down reoffending rates.

Is that a good idea? Perhaps. We shouldn’t be so allergic to private involvement that we exclude the possibility of non-traditional approaches being effective. But is there a national network of effective rehabilitation groups ready to spring into action in every area? Of course not. So what will happen to the prisoners released to save money now? They’ll be dumped onto the existing probation system, which really will not be able to cope.

Clarke, who is basically sensible, would probably agree that the process needs to be phased in over a long period. If we saw a gradual reduction in prisoner numbers, met with a gradual increase in rehab for drugs and alcohol and – why not? A range of pilot schemes for NGOs and other groups with new ways of helping ex-offenders would be excellent.

But he doesn’t have time to do that, since Osborne wants his 25-40% cut by next year. So what we’re actually about to see is a massive overload to the probation system to meet the government’s fanatical fiscal targets, disguised as prison reform.

That’s why it’s right to be sceptical. Not because it’s wrong to end the auction between the parties to lock more and more people up, but because we shouldn’t sign up to a crash programme that won’t work. Labour shouldn’t reject the whole idea. We should welcome the principle, but call for it to be implemented gradually, and ramped up only as the alternatives to prison become available. And if the Tory-Lib Dem government presses ahead and the crime rate soars, we should be ready to point out the reason: not too much reform, but too little genuine political will to pay for it.

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010. He intends to stand again at the next election.

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One Response to “Ken Clarke’s not wrong on prisons; he just doesn’t mean it, says Nick Palmer”

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