Ken Clarke has quickly become the favourite coalition minister of many progressives for his talk of cutting the numbers of prisoners, and modernising Britain’s rehabilitation services.
He has pledged to reduce the prison population from the current high of 85,000 to 82,000 within four years. Given that many prisoners are on short-term sentences, this is equivalent to releasing 10,000 prisoners into society. It will be even more if projections that the prison population will be 93,900 by 2015 prove correct.
The other, harder, part of the equation is, however, unsolved by Clarke. The Justice Secretary is relying on a mixture of relatively untried schemes and strategies to reduce the reoffending rate. They include extending a scheme devised by the outgoing Labour government and launched this year by Clarke to pay charities by results to support former convicts to stay on the right side of the law. Other ideas in the Green Paper include introducing a job-like work routine into prisons and the extension of schemes whereby offenders apologise to victims before serving their sentences.
We do not have the data, as yet, to confirm whether these systems are effective. They would represent a leap in the dark at a time when the public sector was fully-staffed and well-resourced. But as leaked documents from the Ministry of Justice have shown, Clarke is planning to cut his staff by 14,000, including 9,940 who work in the National Offender Management Scheme, the executive agency in charge of reducing offending.
The UK prison population is too high. There are 149 prisoners for every 100,000 people in Britain, compared to the European Union average of 102 per 100,000. The majority of prisoners have a mental health problem, and need support to ensure they can adopt a legal way of life.
But to sign up to reductions in prison numbers before the new systems are tried and tested is to throw up the pieces of the UK’s penal system in the air without knowing where – or on whom – they will fall.
Lowering prison numbers, or reducing the Ministry of Justice budget, should not be the prime function of a progressive penal policy. Reducing crime using strategies backed by hard data should be. It is an empirical fact that Ken Clarke is not Michael Howard. But that does not make his policy progressive.
If progressives hug Clarke too closely on this issue, they are not only risking putting back the cause of true reform of our penal system back a generation. They are gambling with the safety of those who are most vulnerable to crime. And there is nothing progressive about that.
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