Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.
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.