Published in The Sunday Telegraph on 03 April 2011
FOR FIFTEEN YEARS there was a consensus at the top of British politics that prison works. Instituted by Michael Howard, it was followed by Labour as Tony Blair recognised that being tough on crime was not a preoccupation of the Tory right but the very essence of the centre ground.
Since the 2010 election, that consensus has been abruptly abandoned. According to the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, prison has too often “proved a costly and ineffectual approach that fails to turn criminals into law-abiding citizens”. Labour now largely concur (though with inevitable quibbles over funding). And the Liberal Democrats never claimed to be tough on crime in the first place. No major party now appears to represent the approach to law and order that voters want. With no debate, and with no reference to the public, a consensus that reflected popular opinion has been discarded. This can only fuel people’s cynicism about politicians and the political process.
My research found that less than half of the public, victims of crime and police officers think that prison currently works – but the conclusion they draw is precisely the opposite of Ken Clarke’s. If prison doesn’t work, they say, make it work. For them, the problem with prison is not that it fails to turn criminals into model citizens, but that it does not deter criminals from breaking the law. As they see it, sentences are too short to begin with because they are determined by the prison space available, not by the seriousness of the crime. And once an offender has experienced prison life – free board and lodging, with complimentary satellite TV, PlayStation, pool table and gym membership – it is hardly surprising that they seem so willing to go back again and again. That is not to say people think prison serves no purpose. Even short sentences, though offering too little time for proper rehabilitation, give the public respite from the prolific offenders who commit most crime. Community sentences, the alternative to prison, command woefully little public support. Police officers say offenders see them as a soft punishment and often commit further crimes while serving them. And as far as both the public and the police are concerned, community sentences are already given to too many criminals who ought to be locked up.
For Mr Clarke, the key to cutting crime is a “rehabilitation revolution”. To the public ear, this sounds like a soft approach that makes excuses for offenders. It sounds to people like an alternative to proper punishment, rather than a practical additional tool to help cut crime. And though there is an important place for rehabilitation, many think it is doomed to fail on the prolific offenders who are the biggest problem. Ultimately, most think the way to cut reoffending is not to put more emphasis on rehabilitation, but to increase the deterrent effect of sentencing.
Some will see these as reactionary attitudes which prove that when it comes to crime policy, the public are best ignored. This view is arrogant and wrong. The justice system must command the confidence of the public on whose behalf, and at whose expense, it operates. Most people already think the system does a bad job at dealing with offenders and preventing reoffending, precisely because it places too little emphasis on punishment and deterrence. Unless they are persuaded of the wisdom of Mr Clarke’s new direction (a development which does not seem to be imminent), moving even further from the way they think things ought to be done risks a serious crisis of public confidence. It may be – though it seems fabulously unlikely to me – that sending fewer people to prison will mean less crime. But the public are not convinced, and nor are the police.
The approach to crime the public wants, and what governments seem willing to deliver, are two different things. There are obvious dangers in a situation where no mainstream party is seen to represent the public view of how to deal with crime. Fringe parties, and other less savoury organisations, are quick to exploit a vacuum. Politically, the Conservative Party have the most to lose. A firm approach to law and order has been one of the few consistently positive aspects of the Tory brand. The Conservatives should not need to burnish their law and order credentials, they just need to deliver on them. Instead the party risks undermining an important part of its appeal.
As I concluded in Minority Verdict, my account of the 2010 election campaign, being in office gives the Tories the chance to show they are on the side of ordinary people, and that they represent a change for the better. An approach to crime that is the opposite of what voters hoped for, and had been led to expect, is a step in the wrong direction for a party that hopes to be elected with an overall majority in 2015.