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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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