Cool Clarke sends Sun frothy at mouth

Andrew Neilson attacks the tabloid reporting of crime and punishment and provides an evidence based argument for sentencing reform.

Prison Cell

Andrew Neilson is assistant director and head of public affairs and policy at the Howard League for Penal Reform

There is nothing the tabloid newspapers hate more than a politician who blithely confesses that he doesn’t read them. The Justice secretary Ken Clarke is one of this rare breed.

His insouciance merely makes the papers more desperate to insult him. The Daily Mail, for example, has spent months campaigning for Clarke to be ousted, inventing ever more bizarre claims/bouts-of-wishful-thinking, such as the idea back in February that an imminent reshuffle would see Clarke forced to do a jobshare with Michael Howard, of all people. The Sun too, often gets frothy at the mouth in its regular editorial attacks on Clarke.

The decisions which can have profound effects on people’s lives – both victims and those who are charged with an offence – should be made coolly, rationally, and with the full facts of the case at the sentencer’s disposal. As for the sentence itself, it should be handed down because it is going to be the most effective intervention, the one that is most likely to see an individual desist from offending.

The Sun’s latest attack on Clarke, came after it reported a four year old girl was injured when a teenager through a brick into a van window. In an editorial, The Sun tell us that this incident is the “price Britain is paying for craven surrender to the mob”. It then claims that:

“Ken Clarke is the best mate yobs ever had.  He doesn’t believe they should go to jail.”

There is no evidence that Ken Clarke believes that someone who injures a four year old girl should not go to jail. It would be wrong to comment in detail on this incident without full possession of the facts, but while the Ministry of Justice sentencing green paper makes many proposals for reform it is far from obvious that these proposals would prevent a custodial sentence if this case goes to trial. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that although The Sun may work itself into a frenzy, the paper’s own story acknowledges that a 17 year old has now been remanded into custody charged with attempted wounding with intent.

It is quite possible, in fact, that it is The Sun which is the best mate yobs ever had, at least if the ‘yobs’ want to stay ‘yobs’. As the Howard League regularly points out, the re-offending rate for under 18s in custody is a staggering 75 per cent. For at least twice the price (and in the case of privately run child jails, five or six times the price) of a year at Eton College, sending a child into custody will see only one in four go on to desist from offending.

On being released, these young people are trapped in the cycle of crime, or the revolving door between custody and the community. Indeed, the Howard League is shortly due to publish research into short prison sentences which shows that spells in custody can reduce the ability of individuals to take responsibility and make a return to prison ‘inevitable’. Also many prisoners state a preference for a short prison sentence over a community intervention because a few weeks in prison is preferable to the demands of a sentence which is actually designed to tackle the underlying causes of offending behaviour.

I’m sure The Sun would never let these facts get in the way of a good story, however. Not unlike the cycle of offending, the tabloid newspapers are engaged in an ever-worsening cycle of misrepresentation and spin about Ken Clarke and his supposed intentions. The more he ignores them, the worse the reporting gets. For the sake of good policy, if not good journalism, here’s hoping he continues to ignore them.

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