Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is calling for cuts in Britain’s prison population, following the agenda set by the Lib Dems and previously opposed by both the Conservatives and Labour.
Those Labour activists still clinging desperately onto the idea that the Lib Dems are mere cheerleaders in the coalition are going to have to twist themselves into yet more contortions – or simply ignore the facts – as they continue to push their line.
As Jack Straw writes in The Mail:
[David Cameron] has allowed his government’s penal policy to be dictated not by his own common sense but by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke in alliance with 57 Liberal Democrat MPs.
Whilst the Government might not be taking too much notice of the right wing of the Tory party, those traditional Conservatives have found a champion in Mr Straw, who’s had a change of heart in the last couple of years. Back in 2008 he said:
There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective,
But writing in The Mail today, he’s changed his tune. Jack’s now a big fan of short prison sentences and approvingly quotes David Cameron as saying
when someone smashes up the bus stop, when someone repeatedly breaks the law, when someone is found fighting on a Friday or Saturday night, as a magistrate, you’ve got to have that power for a short prison sentence when you’ve tried the other remedies.’
So far, so odd. A senior Labour figure freely admits the Coalition government is following the Lib Dem agenda on law and order, and sides with the Tory right, performing a smart u-turn on short prison sentences in the process.
Much of Straw’s article in the Mail is the same old nonsense we’ve seen from Labour over the last couple of decades: trying to kid people that the Lib Dems approach ignores the victims and is just about cutting money. It’s a nice comfort blanket for the opposition, just not very closely related to reality.
His main thesis is a paean for Michael Howard – probably the most right wing Conservative Home Secretary in the 1979-97 period.
[Michael Howard] deserves credit for turning the tide
Here’s the problem with that argument. Jack Straw is quite right to point out that crime rose from 1979 to 1995 and has fallen since under most measures. He might also have pointed out that it fell fastest under the Conservatives and the sharp drop became more of a gentle trickle after Labour came to power, but never mind – these are the facts.
The big question – the one academics around the world have been debating without firm conclusion ever since – is why crime has fallen. You see, crime didn’t just fall in this country. Similar falls have been seen across most of the western world, starting at roughly the same time, the early to mid ’90s.
Luckily, Jack knows how to find the answer – not for him old-fashioned academic research and an evidence-based approach.
The exact relationship between more criminals going to jail and fewer crimes being committed is complicated. But ask any police officer, ask anyone in the street.
That’s right, Jack. That’s just how we answer these difficult questions.
Here’s why Mr Straw is wrong. He argues that the fall in crime from 1995 is directly linked to the tough “prison works” approach taken by Michael Howard who became Home Secretary in 1993.
But, as I mentioned earlier, crime didn’t just fall in England and Wales. It fell across a wide range of countries. Most of those have a more liberal prison regime, haven’t seen their prison populations rise hugely and have still seen similar falls to ours. Explain that one, Jack.
Prison has an important part to play in our justice system. It’s the right place for serious, violent and some repeat offenders. Clogging up the prison system with offenders who could better be dealt with elsewhere does nothing to help the victims of crime and makes us no safer.
Finally, after decades, we see signs of having a Government willing to step away from the tabloid-pleasing we’re-tougher-than-you criminal justice arms race and take an evidence-based approach to punishing and reforming criminals, helping victims and cutting crime.