Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014 

The hope or possibility of release returns.

Say what you like about judges, and many, especially the tabloid press often do (as an aside, it's worth noting a certain Brian Leveson, in his role as President of the Queen's Bench division, was one of the presiding judges in this case), there are times when they are remarkably ingenious. Almost everyone thought the appeal court would accept the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, and duly find that those given whole life sentences must have some sort of body to which they could apply to have their sentence reviewed after a defined period of time. The Conservatives certainly did, floating the option of allowing judges to impose American style hundreds of years sentences, which could then be reviewed without release being any real possibility.  It seemed a great, typically Tory ploy: adhering to the ruling, if not the spirit of it, in much the same way as parliament has attempted to defy the court over giving the vote to some prisoners.

One indication that perhaps the government knew some sort of compromise was forthcoming, or had some faith in the case it was due to make to the appeal court, was that it suddenly seem to drop the above proposal, almost as quickly as it had raised it. The appeal court's rejection of the ECHR's ruling is based on what it says is a misinterpretation of the current laws: the grand chamber failed to take properly into account what section 30 of the 1997 Crime (Sentences) Act allows. Although previously it has only been used to release prisoners who are terminally ill, it can allow release in other circumstances on compassionate grounds also. The judges can't say what these circumstances might be, except that they will have to be exceptional given the fact a whole life term was considered necessary in the first place, but it still amounts to the "hope or the possibility of release" required, and to compatibility with Article 3.

Whether this is evidence of the perceived new attitude among some judges to the ECHR, no longer taking direction from Strasbourg as unquestionable, is more difficult to tell.  What it has done is both gotten ministers out of a problem, and given them a new one.  Had the appeal court agreed with the ECHR the easiest and best solution would have been to reintroduce the old system where whole life terms were reviewed after 25 years, only giving the power to the parole board or a judge rather than to a politician as was previously the case.  Instead the onus has been put back on the justice secretary, who now faces not just the likes of Ronnie Biggs applying for compassionate release on the grounds of ill-health, but the most notorious murderers and serial killers asking for the same, if that is they can point towards exceptional circumstances that have arisen since they were sentenced.  Nor will it be possible to simply dismiss such requests out of hand when the ECHR will be watching, even if it might well be a while before any such attempts to test out section 30 are made.

This itself depends on whether or not the ECHR accepts the appeal court's reasoning, should another appeal to Strasbourg be made.  It could for instance suggest that still more clarity is needed around section 30, precisely why it reached its decision in the first place, saying the appeal court hasn't in its view disproved its own analysis.  The other thing the ruling has done though, as Joshua Rozenberg notes, is to somewhat take the wind out of Chris Grayling's sails over the upcoming Tory manifesto plan for the reforming/dumping the convention.  No longer able to point to the court saying we can't lock up the worst of the worst for life, although it never said anything of the sort in the first place as both the appeal court and the QC for the government accepted, it leaves just the Abu Qatada palaver and votes for prisoners as the main grievances. A strong enough case for the Pavlovian anti-Europe Tories and tabloids certainly, but not for anyone who bothers to take an interest.  Judicial lawmaking or not, the appeal court's ruling could yet have far wider political consequences.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013 

The usual posturing on the ECHR.

If nothing else, the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights' grand chamber that those sentenced to whole life terms must have at the least a slight hope of one day being freed, has thrown up an somewhat heartening statistical comparison.  We might lock up far more people than most of the rest of Europe, with 83,902 in prison or immigration centres last week (a figure that doesn't include those in either maximum, medium, or low secure mental health wards) but only 49 of those will definitively never be released.  Obviously, some of those given life terms with a minimum period they must serve before being able to apply for parole will also never be released, while others will die in prison, but it can't be said that judges lightly pass sentences that deny the convicted any chance of reform and rehabilitation.

It's understandable then that some have been angered by the ECHR ruling, unusual in that the grand chamber disagreed with the judgement handed down by the court itself, which found against Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore.  Politicians and commentators alike have made the point that in abolishing capital punishment, the compromise was that life sentences that meant life for the most serious offences would be the replacement.  In actuality though, it was only back in 2003 that all discretion was removed with the passing of that year's Criminal Justice Act, when the power to increase the minimum term of life sentences was rightly taken out of the hands of politicians.  With it also went the appeal after 25 years that those sentenced to whole life terms could make.  Oddly however, those who are considered terminally ill or incapacitated still make their appeal for release on compassionate grounds to the justice secretary, hence the controversy over the release of both Ronnie Biggs (still alive, although definitely incapacitated) and al-Megrahi (dead).  The system is also different across the UK: Scotland doesn't have whole life tariffs, while Northern Ireland still has the 25-year system.

The very existence of the whole life sentence poses problems which have never been fundamentally answered.  When there is no hope of release, there is little reason for the prisoner to cooperate with the system except to make what life they have slightly easier for themselves, and in turn, the prison officers.  We saw this just last month with Ian Brady's appeal to the mental health tribunal: whether he genuinely wants to return to prison in order to starve himself to death only he really knows.  What he definitely likes doing is challenging the system, which is what his "hunger strike" protest has long been about.  It's also possible it can have even grimmer side-effects: we can't know whether Dale Cregan's motivation for killing two police officers having already murdered two members of a local crime family was, as he said when he gave himself up, for the hassle the police had caused his family, or that he knew full well the net was closing in and he was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison anyway.

As Joshua Rozenberg points out, it wouldn't take much for the government to meet the court's ruling, whether it amended the 1997 act that provides for compassionate release, or established a system through which whole life terms could be reviewed either by the parole board or a judge after 25 years. It seems extremely unlikely that any of those currently on a whole life tariff would be deemed suitable for release, precisely because they have been used so sparingly. The real issues are two-fold: that a whole life term doesn't seem like one if there is the possibility of release, however remote, the same problem there is with the life sentence which really means life on licence rather than actual life in prison; and that this is in the view of some, another example of the ECHR interfering in laws that should be left to the discretion of member states.

However much it does go against decent liberal sensibilities, that there is always the possibility of redemption and reform, there are some cases where life has to mean life.  That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a system where even the hardest cases should be reviewed, but getting the message across that this won't mean the most depraved criminals could still walk free after 25 years is going to be incredibly difficult if not impossible.  This said, the idea this is going to be legislated on swiftly is laughable: it's now 8 years since the ECHR first ruled that some prisoners should get the vote, and as yet there still hasn't been an act facilitating it.

Instead we will get plenty of posturing.  Chris Grayling we're told wants further reform of the ECHR rather than the exit, while Theresa May apparently wants us out.  It doesn't matter that however often scrapping the human rights act is discussed or leaving the ECHR is proposed, we never hear specifically what it is about the convention that makes it beyond the pale.  We hear complaints about the right to a family life preventing the deportation of criminals as well as the whole Abu Qatada fandango, when the reality is that the objection is to the way judges, both British and at the ECHR interpret the law.  Getting rid of the HRA and replacing it with a "British" bill of rights which will almost certainly contain the exact same protections is not going to change things without the legislation being so specific as to be discriminatory itself.  Unless the Tories win a majority in 2015, and they're certainly not on course for one at the moment, we might eventually get round to putting back in place a system that until very recently wasn't regarded as beyond the pale.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

Let's be beastly to crims (and dole bludgers).

It's the week of the local elections, which means it's the absolute opportune time to announce a new round of unpleasantness to those considered to be unpleasant.  Moving away from the usual targets, benefit claimants (on whom more in a moment), Chris Grayling has pounced upon the only people less popular with politicians, those convicted of crime rather than just deemed guilty of a moral one.

Out then go the old soft regimes where it was somewhat left up to prison governors how they operated the privileges system in their respective nicks, and in comes a new tougher scheme which seems focused on making the first two weeks in prison even more uncomfortable and depersonalising than it was already.  No longer will prisoners be allowed to wear their own clothes to begin with, have a TV in their cell (Ben Gunn says those on the basic level don't as it stands now; they also have to pay for them, contrary to popular belief), an increased number of visits or access to private cash; all must instead be earned.  Plenty of people will look at that and think that all sounds perfectly reasonable, and on one level it is.  The problem though is that it's the first few days in prison when those who are new to the experience are at their most vulnerable, both from other prisoners and themselves.  If the purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, then it helps no one if further avoidable harm is done to the individual at the very outset of their sentence.

As with so much of our policy on prisons, a little honesty and humility would go a long way.  Again, few are going to protest at prisoners being made to work a longer day, but they might if they knew there aren't enough jobs to go round in the first place, or what prisoners get in return for their labour.  There are a few schemes where they can earn in the region of £30 a week, although far more usual is pay of £4 to £10.  This is often work of the most menial kind, as a recent Howard League for Penal Reform report set out, and which hardly gives the kind of experience likely to impress employers on the outside.  For those who can't be found a job, they're likely to spend most of their time banged-up. While it's not explained exactly how prisoners can be stopped from watching TV in the daytime if they're on the higher privilege level and have one, what else are they expected to do? Read, if they haven't already finished those books they've got? Continue with any education programmes they're on, regardless of the lack of access to a tutor? Just kick their heels? Imposing boredom might be considered a punishment, but it brings with it its own set of obvious problems.

Nor do these changes take into consideration those who continue to maintain their innocence.  As admitting guilt is the first thing you have to do in order to take part in the rehabilitation programmes designed to prove your readiness to be released, those who refuse to do so will forever be stuck on the basic level, something that seems bound to lead to a legal challenge.  Then there are just the silly inconsistencies: prisoners won't be allowed 18 rated DVDs (they've long been prohibited items in medium or low security hospital wards), but will presumably be able to watch such films if they're shown on television.

The ultimate test of such changes ought to be whether they improve behaviour while in prison or decrease recidivism upon release.  One expects that studies will be established once the changes start in November to measure if this turns out to be the case.  Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking the entire episode was designed as a purely populist measure to win a few votes during the traditional period of purdah.

Definitely not designed to win votes is the latest imposition on those without a job, a questionnaire apparently put together by the government's behavioural science unit, which must be completed on pain of the loss of benefits.  Those looking for work are presented with 48 statements, some of which are patently ridiculous ("I have not created anything of beauty in the last year"), and then asked whether they agree or disagree.  Any possibility this might help those lacking self-esteem or self-confidence is only slightly undermined by how the results at the end are largely identical regardless of whether you fill in the boxes or not.  For those worried about the creepiness of a test that bears more than a resemblance to the Oxford Capability Analysis carried out by Scientologists, it doesn't seem as though the results are recorded, which nonetheless isn't much of a reassurance.  Nor is it apparent what the point of it is, although that seems a perfectly adequate summary of the work of the "nudge" unit thus far.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013 

Every day is like Sunday. (Or, how tabloid journalism continues to work.)

Friday 8th March:
Former prison officer Richard Trunkfield pleads guilty to misconduct in public office, admitting that he sold information on a "high-profile" inmate to the Sun for £3,350.

Wednesday 13th March:
The Sun publishes front page article claiming a prison officer announced over the tannoy that the "right honourable member for Wandsworth North" was to come and get his breakfast.  It also claims that Chris Huhne asked to be moved to the vulnerable prisoners wing after he was "badgered by cons for cash".  The paper's sources for both claims are "prison visitors".

Addendum: Carina Trimingham denies Huhne was either ridiculed on his first day in Wandsworth or that he has asked to be moved to the isolation wing.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013 

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Is it possible to not really know where to settle on the sentences handed down to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce? As others have said, it would ordinarily be absurd to send two first time offenders to prison for a crime in which no one else was harmed, nothing was stolen and where the only real victims have been the perpetrators themselves, who might not have lost everything but most certainly have done substantial if not fatal damage to their careers. It's also the case that giving high profile figures "deterrent" sentences isn't just manifestly unfair, it doesn't achieve its aim. If anything, the coverage of the case is likely to increase the numbers aware of how to swap driving penalty points and make the practice even more widespread.

This said, there's always something eminently distasteful about the way politicians and public figures tend to regard the offences their own commit, and the way they respond to crime committed by everyone else. There have been plenty of tributes to the pair, especially to Huhne, most ignoring that he kept up a lie for 10 years, only admitting guilt after his attempts to get the case against him thrown out had failed.  Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offence, regardless of the circumstances, or as Simon Jenkins claims, how the entire judicial system is built around lying. While the likes of the Mail have delighted in Huhne's downfall, it's been nothing compared to the way plenty responded to the bringing low of Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer. That politicians on the whole remain wedded to the idea that prison works all but demands that their misdemeanours should be treated just as harshly as those committed by those at the bottom of society.

You don't though have to feel any sympathy for Huhne or Pryce whatsoever to regard the entire case as a circus.  Justice Sweeney, as the Heresiarch argues, seemed to swallow the media narrative wholesale and did his very best to add to it. His judgement on Pryce was extraordinarily harsh, who while devious and complicit in the offence has been comprehensively screwed over by all those she thought she could trust, first Huhne, and then the Sunday Times and their remarkable disregard for her as a source.  However much we might recoil from the phone calls she made to Huhne in an attempt to get him to admit to forcing her to take the penalty points, it's worth recalling how Huhne told her their marriage was over: during a World Cup game, with his parting remark being that Pryce shouldn't talk to the newspapers. And with that, he went off to the gym.

One contrast to draw is the settlement reached today between George Monbiot and Lord McAlpine, where he has pledged to perform three years of charitable work rather than pay damages. Quite apart from how I fail to see how either Monbiot or Sally Bercow libelled McAlpine with their tweets, it seems a remarkably more productive if over the top way to pay penance.  The most obvious example of a politician attempting to make up for their failings is John Profumo (again, whether he had much to make up for at all is dubious), who spent 40 years doing various good works in the East End after his resignation as an MP.  On these terms, a lengthy period of community work would normally have been a perfectly fitting sentence rather than a prison term.

I say normally as this isn't a normal case, however much it ought to be.  The normal punishment for the offence of swapping penalty points does seem to be a short prison term, whether it seems the right one or not.  In line with this, it would have been perverse for Huhne and Pryce not to go to prison.  All the same, it just doesn't seem right, and to go against Simon Jenkins again, I don't think there has been any great public glee at their downfall.  Rather, it's been the media that's revelled in it, as though they're either making up for something, or preparing for what might be coming to some of their own shortly.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012 

David Cameron is duly invited to the vomitorium.

All things considered, there are relatively few things I find so anathema that they make me feel physically ill.  Coming from someone who was so often throwing up at one point that I was ironically nicknamed "sick", factor in I barely feel comfortable in my own skin at most times, and this is quite the statement.  Compare me to David Cameron for instance, who finds the mere prospect of prisoners gaining the right to vote so terrible that he gets the urge to purge, and it's apparent my constitution is positively cast iron.

Cameron is by no means the only politician moved to blow chunks at having to give the franchise to those currently detained at her majesty's pleasure.  Truth be told, I'd wager the vast majority couldn't care less or quite probably even privately support giving some behind bars the opportunity if they so wish to vote.  It's that this is something being forced on them by the European Court of Human Rights.  If there's one thing politicians can't stand it's being told that they have to do something, unless of course it's the Daily Mail or the Sun doing the ordering, in which case they immediately hop to it.  Combine this with how it's the European court saying we have to change the law, even if the ECHR doesn't have anything to do with the European Union, as well as how this is about the supposed human rights of those who some on the right feel should count themselves lucky they aren't given just bread and water and left with only a bucket to piss and shit in, and it's a no brainer.  If they can't pontificate about this at pompous length, just what can they hiss and moan about?

Sadly, like it or not, the government has to look as though it's at least starting the process of changing the law or the Council of Europe might start imposing a few tiny fines over our intransigence.  In reality it's not so much the Council the government's worried about as it is prisoners starting legal action demanding compensation for being denied their rights, something that will almost certainly cost far more than any fines from Europe.

In line with the deadline set by the ECHR expiring tomorrow, the coalition has then duly set out the earliest possible draft of its prospective legislation (PDF).  In clear defiance of the court is that one of the options available to MPs will be to vote against any prisoners gaining the franchise, with the other choices to extend it to those serving sentences of less than 6 months and 4 years respectively.  Since the last skirmish over these proposals, the legal situation has changed slightly, as the draft bill sets out.  The grand chamber of the ECHR found in the case of Scoppola v. Italy (No.3) that it wasn't necessary for the judge at the time of sentencing to specifically remove the right to vote from the guilty party.  It did however reaffirm the principle that a blanket ban was discriminatory, so the inclusion of the do nothing option in the draft bill is the equivalent of sticking two fingers up to the court.

As Joshua Rozenberg (always worth remembering Rozenberg is married to Melanie Phillips, so he must have had a really enjoyable past week) sets out though, the government does still have significant leeway.  The ECHR doesn't demand that the law be changed immediately; merely that they set in motion the process of altering it.  This it has duly done, albeit at the last possible moment.  Whether the eventual published bill will make its way to the statute book before the next election is therefore highly doubtful.

Nonetheless, by including the status quo option at all the government seems to be setting itself up for a fall.  If it had really wanted to make things difficult for the ECHR while still complying with successive rulings, it could have gone for an even shorter limit than 6 months; why not 3 months, or 4 weeks?  It may well be that the joint committee will subsequently reject the option of offering no change in the bill, but that seems unlikely considering the strength of feeling among MPs.  The thinking appears to be that as long as the issue is defined in law, regardless of how, the court will have to bow to the will of parliament.

Not only is this foolish considering the legal advice, it's at odds with the coalition's somewhat enlightened views on attempting to reduce the level of reoffending.  Only this week Chris Grayling announced that all those sentenced to a year or less would be given a mentor on release who would try to guide them away from a return to crime, a sound idea, albeit one that needs resources and ingenuity the government and its favoured private sector contractors tend not to have.  Recognising that cutting those serving short sentences off from society until the day they're dumped back on the street is damaging rather than beneficial ought to be the first step towards designing a rehabilitation programme that truly works.  By allowing those serving under a year to vote if they so wish would be a further sign that regardless of what they've done, they will shortly be a member of their local community again, with all the rights and responsibilities (ugh) that entails.  Plus, if it means David Cameron and Tory backbenchers heaving as they go through the division lobbies, that's an incalculable bonus.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011 

Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.

The usual tendency in politics is to offer much before you win power, then to do very little, if not the direct opposite to that you promised once you're in it. Ken Clarke and the Conservatives seemed for a time to have got it backwards. Despite their manifesto making the usual noises on law and order, with mandatory jail sentences for those committing a crime using a knife and a pledge to "redevelop" the prison estate to ensure early release wasn't necessary again, Clarke was swiftly given the authority to almost completely ignore the hardback blue tome. Helped along by the cuts being made to his budget, Clarke quickly proposed measures that would have resulted in a drop in the prison population of around 6,500, while there were to be further sentence discounts for early guilty pleas.

As quickly as this surprise was sprung on us, it's been taken away. Clarke, it has to be said, didn't make things easy for himself. With the tabloids always likely to oppose even the slightest changes to a system they have had a major part in imposing upon us, he had to watch his every step and take a softly softly approach. His unfortunate performance during a 5 Live interview presented them with a massive open goal, which they took advantage of gleefully. Since then we've had the riots, and with so much else the government is doing becoming increasingly unpopular, Ken has been fighting a losing battle. First went his sentence discount plans and call for more community sentences, and now his opposition to mandatory terms with the exception of those convicted of murder has also been overruled.

Whether this has any connection to the battle between Clarke and Theresa May over that darn cat, or if indeed the apparent animosity had surfaced before then is difficult to tell. May has never really come across as a populist, so maybe it's simple cynicism: doing what the tabloids want in an attempt to get them to back off elsewhere. Certainly, Cameron could hardly have been comforted by the continual attacks from the Sun over his dropped promise on knife crime. To them, anyone carrying a knife is a savage, regardless of whether they're doing it out of fear or youthful stupidity, and so deserves to spend at least four months in prison. Rather than allowing a judge or magistrate to make their own decision based on the circumstances of each individual case, the government must intervene and take the matter out of their hands.

Clarke did at least fight his corner. Even on Tuesday he was arguing in front of the home affairs select committee that it would be a "bit of a leap for the British justice system" for the government to demand a court send a 13-year old first time offender to a secure home. Yesterday he was left to stand up in the Commons and announce that while he had managed to prevent that from happening, 16 and 17-year-olds would face a mandatory term should they use a knife or other offensive weapon to "threaten or endanger", which essentially means waving it around even if they have no intention of actually doing anything with it. The option of using restorative justice in such a case, or community service, something that might bring home to a young person both more effectively and cheaply the gravity of their foolishness is to be withheld. This is the exact kind of pseudo tough policy making that has failed us for the past 17 years.

Much the same is true, although less objectionably, of the proposed mandatory life term for those committing a second "most serious sexual or violent offence". Clarke himself said this would most likely only apply to those who commit two "probably near-murderous attacks" and only affect around 20 people a year, but this is much the same that was said about Labour's indeterminate public protection regime, with subsequently over 6,000 receiving them, many languishing in prison past their minimum term unable to access the courses necessary to prove they're no longer a risk. One thing to welcome is the abolition of IPPs, although this is also tempered by the proposed replacement, the extended determinate sentence. This looks to be the equivalent of a life sentence in all but name, with the difference being that parole can be applied for once two-thirds of the term has been served. Once released they will then remain on licence for up to 8 years, or 10 for the most serious offenders. One suspects this will shortly become the standard sentence for almost all "serious" offenders, putting extra pressure on the prison estate and then in turn probation (receiving heavy cuts) for possibly little overall benefit.

Apart from how these massive changes to current practice have been left to be inserted into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill as amendments at the very last minute, with no time for consultation, the most troubling thing for Clarke must be the effect they'll have on his actual prison reform programme. To be able to have any chance of reducing re-offending, prisoners must have access to the work, training and therapy programmes he's been proposing. This is next to impossible to provide when some prisons are forced through overcrowding to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. Without bringing the population down to a sustainable level, the whole cause looks lost.

When the Sun then asks where Clarke goes from here, with their suggestion being that his time is up, it's difficult to disagree even if it's for an entirely different reason to the one they set out. Why continue as justice secretary when he's clearly lost the support he initially had for thinking somewhat radically? He should resign now and let those truly responsible take the blame when the attempt to "break the cycle" miserably fails.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011 

In which I admit to talking crap redux.

One of the not so great spectacles of the last few months has been seeing those who should know better and those who have no shame variously passing judgement on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It's one of those cases where you can safely say that individuals on all sides share guilt: those in France, whether they be the philosopher buffoon Bernard-Henri Levy who sprang to DSK's offence in the way only a puffed up windbag can, or the others who assumed guilt based on DSK's only now reported serial womanising. Unfortunately, we can't even feel desperately sorry for Nafissatou Diallo: besides her lack of reliability as a witness based on dishonesty over her past, she was advised abysmally, as exemplified by the exclusive interviews she gave which only undermined her case yet further. In an ideal world, she would have had her day in court and a jury would have decided whose version of events to believe based on all the evidence. This is not an ideal world.

Deciding who's guilty and who isn't based on media reporting, or worse, on someone's past record, is daft. In the spirit of DSK then and in the second sort of mea culpa of the week, the acquittal of Learco Chindamo is welcome and refreshing news. Chindamo had not only been charged with the robbery of a man at a cashpoint, only four months after being released on parole, having served 14 years for the murder of the headteacher Philip Lawrence, it was also alleged he had intimidated the man by referring to the murder, something which suggested all those who had testified as to his changed, remorseful nature had been misled. OK, I didn't pass judgement based on his arrest, having believed such accounts, but all the same I felt the need to draw further attention to it before justice was done.

In a way, it does in fact show just how the justice system works when someone sentenced to life and released is then accused of a further crime: Chindamo has spent the entire time since he was arrested back in prison, and three previous trials collapsed for various reasons before he was finally acquitted yesterday, when it's unlikely the Crown Prosecution Service would have felt it was in the public interest for such expense and time to be spent trying a relatively minor crime had it involved those without such serious prior convictions. He will now have to go in front of the parole board again before he can be released, something unlikely to be a formality. As Frances Lawrence said, it can only be hoped that he has a happier, calmer and more productive future ahead of him.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011 

And yet again, the tabloids win.

Who could possibly have wanted to be Ken Clarke over the past few weeks? At least when John Reid, David Blunkett or Jacqui Smith found themselves in the temporary eye of a tabloid storm over crime it was primarily a result of their failing to live up to the very image they had courted of themselves as common sense, salt of the earth hard liners, in tune with what the editors of the Daily Mail and Sun said was the prevailing public attitude towards criminals. He was certainly foolish to not quickly clarify his comments on rape, even if he was mainly responding to the utterly inaccurate claim that rapists could end up only serving 15 months of a sentence in prison if they pleaded guilty at the earliest possible opportunity under his proposals. Almost completely unreported went the meeting he had with Gabrielle Browne, the woman he spoke to on the initial 5 Live interview, who accepted his argument once he set out how the policy was part meant to prevent victims in the future from going through the additional trauma she suffered in court.

As it turns out, Clarke's real adversary hasn't been the tabloids but David Cameron. Having allowed Clarke to set out his reforms to the criminal justice system in last December's green paper, optimistically titled Breaking the Cycle, he's abandoned him at the last minute. This is becoming a habit of Cameron's: he's done it in quick succession to Caroline Spelman, Andrew Lansley and now his justice secretary. On each occasion the policy has passed through the cabinet, been given the apparent go ahead, and then the individual minister has been left to take either the entirety of the blame or almost all of it. On selling off the forests and reforming the NHS the "u-turns" have delivered slightly better, if still highly flawed policies; the exact opposite is the case this time round.

Indeed, there's few individuals or interested parties who believe that we can carry on locking people up at the rate we have ever since Michael Howard made his infamous declaration to the Conservative party conference. Those few include Michael Howard (natch), the Tory right, certain sections of the Labour party who still believe fervently in triangulation, and the right-wing press. Not only does it cost an astonishing amount of money, with £45,000 being the often stated cost of a year's imprisonment (the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley report agrees (PDF)), it only works in the sense that it contains the relatively few who need to be locked away either permanently or for long periods to protect the public and gives a temporary respite to communities from those other few who commit a majority of the "low-level" crime. It punishes, but it doesn't rehabilitate. It fails miserably in getting addicts on the path to recovery, and does little to help those with mental health problems get the individual care and therapy they need.

Clarke had firmly grasped this, and partially using the necessity to make cuts in the budget of the Ministry of Justice, had proposed some baby steps towards reducing the overall prison population, encouraging more use of community sentences, giving sentence discounts to those who admitted their guilt at the first possible opportunity, saving the cost of a prosecution, and making prison regimes more rigorous through work schemes which together with improved education opportunities could help begin to bring re-offending rates down. The majority of this has now cast aside almost entirely by Cameron, with Clarke left to make a brave, affable face in the Commons on what's left of his original plans.

Out then has gone any aim to cut the prison population, even if only by around a mooted 6,500, which now stands close to 85,000. At best the number will stabilise, although more likely is that it will increase thanks to the other changes introduced without warning by Cameron. Completely dropped has been any further discount for early guilty pleas, even for less serious offences. Community sentences will not be suggested as an alternative to short prison terms, with Clarke hiding behind the reasoning that "more than 10%" currently only involve a supervision requirement, generally a fortnightly meeting with a probation officer, even while the proposed bill makes the other nearly 90% more onerous, with a longer working day and week for those on "community payback" schemes. Where the Tories were thinking so radically to begin with that they suggested prisoners could earn something approaching a reasonable wage while behind bars, now the plan is to take more away from the tiny amount those working can earn to give to victim support groups. If the notion is sound, questionable on its own, then it becomes less so when the average weekly wage in prison is £9.60. Even those few working for private firms - Policy Exchange recently highlighted a highly lucrative scheme where DHL pays prisoners £30 a week for 30 hours work - are paid so little that any taken away only further disincentives those who choose to work.

The original proposals which do remain, such as drug recovery wings, are undermined when the bill pledges to "increase security measures to reduce the supply", plans which will doubtless further target visitors rather than the main source of such substances, corrupt prison officers. Anyone who has had to go through the deeply unpleasant experience of visiting a high security prison in the last couple of years will be delighted by any further tightening in the process of getting in to see a relative. To be welcomed is the softly stated promise to "ensure offenders with mental health problems receive treatment in the most appropriate and the most secure setting necessary", which should hopefully direct the sick and vulnerable away from prison, as is the emphasis given to restorative justice, the proposals for which may just eventually build a further alternative or supplement to short sentences or fines.

Most destructive of all though are the Cameron imposed "get tough" headline policies, exactly those that have failed in the past on all counts and which it was hoped had disappeared with New Labour. Having given a manifesto pledge to jail anyone caught with a knife, Cameron's given in to pressure from the Sun and insisted upon a mandatory sentence of at least six months for anyone who threatens someone else with a blade, removing a judge's discretion and ignoring the individual circumstances of each case. Clarke's planned reforms to the scandal of indeterminate sentences, where thousands of prisoners cannot even access the scheme necessary to prove that they are no longer a risk to public will instead be replaced by "even tougher" determinate sentences, helping no one. As for making squatting illegal and putting down in legislation the already unwritten rule that property owners who use "reasonable force" to defend themselves will not be prosecuted, gestures are already being resorted to.

With the savings then having to come from somewhere other than reducing the number of prisoners, everything else will take an additional walloping. Probation, the very thing that protects the public once offenders are released will face additional cuts, as will legal aid, already being slashed. What's more, it signals an end to any illusion that this government on criminal justice if nothing else would live up to its billing as being of a liberal conservative bent. Having called for the abolition of short sentences completely, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats did nothing whatsoever to support Clarke when the crunch came. Finally, it shows Cameron will be just as beholden to the tabloids as New Labour was, creating new offences and indulging in legislating for effect the second they kick up a stink, the very things he said he would put an end to. Clarke could resign in protest, but it wouldn't achieve anything, and someone worse would simply be put in his place. Having had his reforms crippled, the only thing he and we can hope is that the good remaining parts work. There might then just be something to build on if Labour finally decides to stop playing the desperately destructive "who can be toughest" game.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011 

The travails of Ken Clarke.

The age-old political conundrum of whether to focus on a long-term, policy led strategy or instead adopt a scattergun, short-term approach which grabs attention immediately but doesn't necessarily command it beyond the 24-hour news cycle has hardly been answered by the travails of Ken Clarke. Ed Miliband's decision to immediately demand his resignation following his catastrophic interview with Victoria Derbyshire on 5 Live might have felt like the right thing to do, putting David Cameron temporarily at least on the back foot at prime minister's questions, but the day after with Clarke still determinedly in position as justice secretary it instead smacks of the old, short-sighted politics Miliband has suggested he wanted to move away from.

Clarke's comments, if it wasn't already abundantly clear, were shockingly ill-thought through. His argument with Derbyshire was though, as Full Fact points out, based around the false premise that the average sentence for rape is 5 years. This was itself inspired by the Daily Mail's front page on Wednesday, which claimed that rapists who pleaded guilty at the earliest possible opportunity could end up serving only 15 months as result of Clarke's proposals that 50% rather than 33% be deducted from their sentence for such an quick admittance of responsibility. 5 years is in fact meant to be the starting point for judges in cases of rape, and the average sentence turns out to be between 7 and 8 years. Even so, it ought to have been apparent to Clarke that as soon as he responded to Derbyshire's comment that "rape is rape, with respect" with "no, it's not", that he had seriously erred. He then compounded it with his comments on the "less serious" nature of date rape, as well as how wrong he managed to get it on unlawful sexual intercourse, as a 17-year-old having consensual sex with a 15-year-old is not considered rape as he repeatedly suggested.

His failure to immediately apologise sincerely for "misspeaking", as no one is seriously claiming that he regards certain types of rape as less serious to the victim than others, having only really done so convincingly tonight on Question Time, has admittedly compounded the offence. This though seems to be more down to Clarke's old-fashioned stubbornness combined with his refusal to go into interviews thoroughly briefed than out of any genuine malice. More than anything, he was attempting to explain how someone convicted of rape might end up with only a 5 year sentence, even if his way of doing so was hopelessly out-dated and an example of his attempting to wing his way through encounters with journalists rather than read up on the subject.

If Clarke is going to be indicted on something, it ought to be on that score rather than on one of either belittling victims of rape, or actively endangering, even betraying women as the Sun claimed. As Sunny writes, Clarke's comments have resulted in some truly bizarre and very temporary alliances being forged. The Sun, which has been campaigning for some time for Clarke to be brought into line over his crime policies, so wedded as it is to the increasingly unaffordable and scandalously ineffective "prison works" orthodoxy, finds itself not only quoting old ally Jill Saward but also the head of the Fawcett Society, exactly the kind of lefty wimmin's organisation it usually mocks and pours scorn over.

Just how much thought went into Miliband's decision to call for Clarke's sacking is impossible to tell. If the idea was that the coalition as a whole might be weakened through his removal, with a less popular Tory put in his place, then this seems to overlook how it's mainly down to Clarke that the ridiculous, destructive battle over who could be tougher on criminal justice has been essentially brought to an end. Even if it was New Labour's change in position on crime which helped win over the support of the likes of the Sun in the first place, the leadership surely hasn't got such short memories that they've forgotten how they were tore into by that very same paper ad nauseum despite doing almost all they could to put their solutions into practice. Miliband seemed to have recognised that ending the war was in the best interests of all concerned, commenting that he wasn't going to say Clarke was soft on crime just because he was proposing reducing short sentences. He even continued this theme in... the Sun, as George Eaton notes.

Whether or not Jack Straw's pitiful "my view" in that same paper today was sanctioned by the leadership, which seems doubtful considering he refused to demand that Clarke be sacked tonight on Question Time, it gives the impression that Labour would rather return to a conflict they can't possibly win instead of just condemning the justice secretary's loose talk while offering tacit support for his bid to further credit earlier guilty pleas. It would be foolish to suggest that Miliband can do without the occasional piece of praise from the Sun, yet to win it over a chalice as poisoned as this one will do him no favours over the long term. Possible as it is that the party could win back support by adopting the kind of tougher stance proposed by Lord Ashcroft for the Tories, it leads to the problem Clarke has faced down: that locking more and more people up is simply unsustainable, in terms of cost both in money and to society at large. Labour desperately needs to win voters back without resorting to the dead end of triangulation. Resisting the temptation to indulge in cheap populism is vital to just such a strategy.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011 

Bullshit, vindictiveness and classic little Englander syndrome.

You wouldn't normally consider Denis MacShane likely to be one of the few MPs to stand up for "classic, bleeding-heart, do-gooding British liberalism". MacShane's voting record, possibly influenced by his time as a minister, includes voting very strongly for ID cards as well as 90 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects; he also made one of those poor souls administering the new expenses regime cry, later returning with chocolates in an attempt to make up for his behaviour. It's come to something then when his intervention into the debate on votes for prisoners is almost certainly the best informed and most cogently argued of the few to make the case for the extension of the franchise to some of those currently languishing in our prisons.

As to how heavy an influence the fact he's an ardent Europhile is on his opinion is open to question, but at least it's better to be somewhat consistent rather than just an eternal opportunist, a description which doesn't quite do justice to the wretched Jack Straw. There simply isn't a more loathsome individual left in the Commons than this lickspittle, a politician so repulsive that he must even have dogs vomiting when they set eyes on him. Lest we forget, Jack Straw oversaw the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention in UK law. Since then he's done everything he possibly can to undermine it, culminating in him agreeing with the Daily Mail that it was seen as a villians' charter, all thanks to those completely irresponsible judges daring to come decisions that the right-wing press and populists everywhere simply can't abide.

No surprise then that of all people he could have shacked up with over the ECHR's judgement that some prisoners must have the right to vote, he decided to do so with David Davis. Davis at least is consistent in that he's a traditional libertarian: opposed to any restrictions on freedom for those who do no harm to others, highly punitive on those who do break the law. Even he however erred badly during the debate, saying that the concept "if you break the law, you should not make the law" is sound. This would be applicable if voters actually made the law: they do not. We elect representatives to do that for us, and that seems to have been the point most grievously missed by MPs. Those imprisoned currently, despite what some of the tabloids would have you believe, have next to no one who represents them and their concerns, and as a result prison reform is occasionally discussed but hardly ever acted upon or put into practice. It would be more than pushing it to suggest that giving prisoners the franchise would greatly improve the chances of this happening, but it would as has been previously argued put votes into it. Prisoners should be able to challenge the conditions under which they are held, something they can currently only do if they can prove their remaining rights are being infringed.

Straw meanwhile was as dependent as ever on being disingenuous. According to him to problem is not with either the HRA or the ECHR, but rather with "judicial activism", with the judges trying to carve out a role for themselves as an ultimate supreme court of Europe. Judicial activism is a phrase more associated with the right in America, used to condemn any decision which offends their morals. Anyone who reads the Hirst vs UK ruling in full will see that not only was much leeway given, but that it was also conciliatory and a majority rather than unanimous decision. It has since been built on by the Frodl vs Austria judgement, which is slightly more prescriptive, yet it's still clear that the court is not ordering that every prisoner must have the vote, only that a full ban is disproportionate. Despite much comment otherwise, and as the attorney general Dominic Grieve made clear, we are not obliged to follow the ruling to the letter, it's just that simply ignoring it completely is not an option. The Council of Europe criticised the UK last year for not introducing a full ban on smacking after we changed the law as a result of an ECHR ruling, but has not as yet gone any further. The same would almost certainly be the case if we allowed those imprisoned for two years or less to vote.

The end result, considering the media comment, was hardly as overwhelming as might have been expected. Only a third of the house voted with ministers and their shadows all abstaining, along with many others. 22 bravely voted against, MacShane strangely not among them according to the list on ePolitix, with Peter Bottomley deserving a special mention for being the only Tory to swim against the tide. We don't need so much "classic, bleeding-heart, do-gooding British liberalism" it seems as a few with a backbone prepared to stand up against bullshit, vindictiveness and classic little Englander syndrome, made even more ridiculous by how we drafted the ECHR in the first place.

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Friday, December 17, 2010 

Burying bad news? Never!

It's good to see that regardless of the political shade of government, unpopular decisions still get mysteriously announced on Friday afternoons when the hope is that almost no one will notice.

As far as almost inevitable compromises go, the decision to give those serving prison sentences of less than 4 years the franchise seems to be about the best that could have been hoped for. Certainly, it would have been far fairer to either allow the judge to decide who should and shouldn't be denied the vote at the time of sentencing, although that leaves things very much on his whim and could also lead to countless cases of those told they won't be allowed the vote challenging the decision when others given similar or even the same term have been, or alternatively to give the vote to everyone not sentenced to life. This might also save time and further expense: as the Heresiarch points out, the more recent Frodl case decided by the European Court of Human Rights makes clear they favour either of the two aforementioned solutions, leaving the door wide open for a further legal challenge. Whether the court will be prepared to rule against a piece of legislation specifically designed to deal with their judgement remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010 

Failing to break out of the cycle.

Ken with his long-legged, grey-haired Russian research assistant.

For those under the impression that the Liberal Democrats are in a class of their own when it comes to broken promises over policies featured in election manifestos, a quick reread of the section on crime in the Conservatives' already seminal "Invitation to join the government of Britain" tome should also amuse. While the contents have not been quite as turned on their head as the Lib Dem policy on tuition fees has become, two fairly unambiguous pledges have been shelved (from pages 56 and 57):

Today, almost four out of every five found guilty of a knife crime escape jail. We have to send a serious, unambiguous that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, so we will make it clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.


In the last three years, 80,000 criminals have been released early from prison because the government failed to build enough places. We are determined that early release will not be introduced again, so we will redevelop the prison estate and increase capacity as necessary to stop it.

In actual fact, the Conservative manifesto was fairly tame when it came to criminal justice policy. This was surprising at the time for the reason that the Tories had up to then competed actively with Labour over who could issue the most reactionary rhetoric, repeatedly arguing that violent offences were out of control on the basis of a one-sided reading of the statistics, while damning the early release scheme in uncompromising language (including in a personal election attack billboard ad on Gordon Brown) even though it only released prisoners two weeks earlier than they otherwise would have been.

Whether this is a sign that had the Tories won an outright majority they would now be implementing much the same policies as outlined in today's green paper on sentencing and rehabilitation is impossible to know for certain. What is clear is that the Liberal Democrats, as in so much else, seem to have had absolutely no role whatsoever in the framing of the change in policy. Instead, it seems to have simply been their presence in government which helped effect the change; with Vince Cable becoming business secretary, the evergreen Ken Clarke, having shadowed the position for the Tories instead became justice secretary, helped along by Chris Grayling, the party's shadow home secretary commenting unhelpfully just prior to the election on bed and breakfasts' right to refuse gay couples from sharing a bed. With Grayling demoted to Iain Duncan Smith's underling at work and pensions, the far more liberal pairing of Theresa May and Clarke has apparently been given relative freedom to craft their own policies, although for the most part they are in tune with those outlined in the Tory manifesto.

In almost an instant the consensus that has dominated British politics ever since the murder of James Bulger, that prison works and that an ever increasing prison population is an unquestionably good thing has been broken. A trend started by the Conservatives was unquestionably followed by Labour, so terrified for so long of being seen to be "soft" on crime that it in effect handed over the helming of law and order policy to the right-wing tabloids, especially the Sun. This triangulation failed not only because such policies were self-defeating, but also because each time Labour gave in and adopted a panic measure in response to the day's passing frenzy, it simply encouraged the likes of the Sun to keep on demanding more. When successive home secretaries failed to live up to the image they had first presented, they were torn apart, John Reid memorably appearing on the front page of the nation's biggest selling newspaper minus his brain.

Whether or not the Conservatives were watching this and while playing the same game in public were planning to put an end to it should they be elected is difficult to know for sure. Certainly, the Sun's influence was still being firmly felt within spitting distance of the election: Dominic Grieve, hastily made shadow home secretary after David Davis's resignation over 42 days was apparently moved from the position after he had the temerity while dining with former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) to critique the paper's coverage of crime, something she complained bitterly about to Cameron, saying they couldn't support the Tories while he remained on the front bench. With Brooks now moved upstairs at News International, perhaps the way was clear for the change in position to be made.

Whatever the case, no one is denying that Ken Clarke has had a major role in the change of policy. Where in the party's manifesto they committed to continuing the insanity of Labour's prison building programme, where additional spaces added to the state were filled almost as soon as they were opened for use, Clarke now actively wants to reduce the prison population, if only by a relatively tiny 3,000. The obvious problem with trying to do so is that he faces the twin difficulties of record rates of re-offending and that for the last 17 years, whether the public or the tabloids believe it or not, ever higher numbers of offenders have been going to prison for ever longer periods of time.

Both are almost certain to conspire against him. Clarke protests in his introduction to the green paper that he will not be disallowing magistrates from using short sentences, merely trying to make the alternatives to time in prison more effective for the offender and more attractive to those passing judgement. While no government was ever going to abolish short sentences in their entirety, even if the Liberal Democrats all but pledged to do so, it's still difficult to see magistrates being dissuaded from using them sufficiently to bring the population down significantly. Clarke's plans will then almost entirely rely on his mooted "rehabilitation revolution", to be achieved within the prison system itself through the development of more "working prisons", where the inmates will be expected to be either in work or education for up to 40 hours a week. Quite how this will work in practice is anyone's guess: the current working prisons mainly cater for inmates either on short sentences or reaching the end of a longer stretch, often as preparation for release. Prisons can't undercut other businesses through lower costs or reduce the number of jobs available as a consequence to law-abiding citizens, which limits even further the work which can be done. There is also no further punishment mentioned for those who refuse to work, which raises the question of how exactly the aim of engaging prisoners in challenging and meaningful work can be achieved.

Much of the burden of reducing re-offending will then fall on the new providers to be brought into the system. Again, quite how this will work is by no means certain: the first pilot, operated by St Giles Trust in Peterborough was only launched in September, and a further four projects will be established by August of next year. As yet there is not even an accepted model as to how the payments will be made, nor is it clear whether they will be any actual savings made for the taxpayer, which is surely just as key as reducing recidivism, once those providing the services have been paid. As Left Foot Forward points out, it's obvious as to why these partners will need to be brought in regardless of Clarke's aims at fostering a "rehabilitation revolution": 9,940 staff currently working for the National Offender Management Scheme are about to lose their jobs. It's also difficult to disagree with Harry Fletcher of Napo that rather than just being about reducing the prison population this is just as much about the privatisation of the current probation system, regardless of the possible effects that could well have on the re-offending rate with the introduction of completely untested new private sector providers.

Clarke then seems to be setting himself up to fail just as much as his Labour predecessors did. Unlike them, he's also had the benefit of outlining his reforms while the media for the most part, especially the tabloid sector which so did for Labour, is either supportive or making few trenchant criticisms. The worst he received today was over his party's broken promise on jailing knife carriers, with the Sun calling it a gamble with people's lives. Whether we like or not, especially when it comes to the dubious involvement of the private and third sectors in rehabilitation, those of us on the left who have repeatedly called for prison reform and an end to the authoritarian approach to crime will find our own alternatives judged on the basis of Clarke's success, a grim irony as we will so many other of the coalition's policies to fail.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010 

In which I admit to talking crap (or a word on Learco Chindamo).

I was, in hindsight, rather setting myself up for this:

All the signs are however that Chindamo is that rare thing - a truly reformed character. Giving a convicted killer the benefit of the doubt is always going to be difficult, even when Frances Lawrence has herself apparently now forgiven him and magnanimously hopes for the best. Chindamo has to live up to what is expected of him, but to do that others have to take him into their confidence as well. The Sun, the rest of the media, and the public should now give him the opportunity and the space to do just that.

Oh. Obviously, we aren't aware of the full facts, it could turn out that it's been a case of mistaken identity, a malicious complaint or otherwise and so we should reserve proper judgement. Nonetheless, if he is subsequently convicted of an offence, the people he has let down most are not that those that saw the best in him and believed in his sincerity, but those who find themselves in a similar position, having committed a heinous crime and now desperately trying to convince the authorities that they are safe to be released back into the community. It's they that may well feel the chilling effects the return of such a notorious criminal to prison will almost certainly have on parole boards.

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