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Daily View: Prison reform

Clare Spencer | 09:43 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010



Commentators discuss Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's plans to reduce prison numbers.

Mary Riddell says in the Telegraph that Ken Clarke's justice revolution might not succeed but it's worth a go:

"The only certainty is that the lock-'em-up evangelism of recent decades gave rise to a fearful and more brutalised society. Our prison system is a national scandal. Too often a petri dish for career criminals, it is, at its most squalid and destructive, an affront to civilization. It is a tribute to Ken Clarke that he, through pragmatism rather than ideology, should act to end that blight, and a measure of Mr Cameron's liberalism that, with some provisos, he should let him. If the Justice Secretary succeeds - and it is a big if - then ours will be a saner and a safer country."

The mental health charity Rethink's Mark Davies suggests in the Guardian Ken Clarke's focus on mental health is strategic:

"Clarke's big mistake was to make reducing prison numbers a policy objective; the better approach is to deal with offenders in the most effective way on behalf of wider society, and that often means a non-custodial option. But having set out his plan, Clarke is in a dilemma. Most of the obvious ways of reducing the use of prison are politically unpalatable and, while Clarke's historic status as a bogeyman of the Tory right is preserved with his green paper, it's clear the process has involved 'detailed discussions' with No 10, which have led to some of the perceived softer elements being dropped along with some of the tough stuff. So, the focus on mental health means this is seen as a key way of reducing prison numbers as well as dealing more effectively with people with mental illness in the justice system."

Ex-offender and former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken highlights in the Times [subscription required] a potential problem for the pay-by-results plans but overall supports the plans:

"Stricter rehabilitation will be successful only when it reduces the rate of reoffending. So the Government is introducing six payment-by-result schemes. Operators will get paid after they have reduced the rate of reoffending by released prisoners by at least 7.5 per centage points from the present average level of 61 per cent...
"Yet there is a worry that payment by results could merely mean big contracts for big companies. Everyone at the coalface of offender rehabilitation knows that the best results are often achieved by small platoons from the voluntary sector. Local charities, such as Surrey Jobmatch, which finds 60 jobs a year for men and women coming out of jail with employers around Dorking, should be encouraged."

The Independent's editorial also points out a problem with concentrating on rehabilitation:

"If there are reservations about Mr Clarke's proposals, it is that the prison budget is facing such severe cuts that rehabilitation programmes risk being under-funded. Yet sending fewer offenders to prison ought to create a virtuous circle: less overcrowded prisons will mean that the ratio of staff to offenders will be lower. A smaller population should enable more of the prison's budget to be spent on tackling drug and alcohol abuse and on other rehabilitation schemes. This is one area of public spending where it is possible to envisage more being done for less."

The Daily Mail's editorial supports the emphasis on rehabilitation but is not as keen on the aim to reduce the prison population:

"Yes, Mr Clarke is right to say our prisons are scandalously ineffective at preventing reoffending. But is that any surprise, when he himself admits they're mere warehouses, without discipline and rife with drugs, where no serious attempts at rehabilitation are made?
"Shouldn't he change that, instead of exposing the public to danger by leaving more criminals - including knife-carrying thugs - at large?"

While most commentators may have their qualms about specific parts of the plan, overall they support it. The same can not be said for Rod Liddle in the Spectator who argues the idea prison doesn't work is flawed:

"It's one thing to argue that we haven't got enough money to lock people up - although the corollary might be that we haven't got enough money NOT to lock people up, given the social and economic cost - but another entirely to claim, conveniently, that we shouldn't lock them up even if we had the money to do so"

Links in full

Independent | A courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom
Mark Davies | Guardian | Ken Clarke's focus on mental health is bold and progressive
Jonathan Aitkin | Times | The Tories are tiptoeing to a prison revolution
Mary Riddell | Telegraph | Ken Clarke's justice revolution might not succeed - but it's worth a go
Daily Mail | Kenneth Clarke's crime gamble
Rod Liddle | Spectator | Lock him up

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