Original article by Sir Ian Blair, 5 September 2010, in the Guardian
As cabinet ministers return after the holidays, there are many dilemmas to be faced in front of George Osborne's star chamber. Perhaps one of the more interesting ones is that faced by Ken Clarke. He needs savings badly, and will have to consider prisons; and when he looks at the problems of reducing the number of inmates, we will get a clearer understanding of the priorities of the coalition.
In June Clarke spoke of his dismay at the near-doubling of the prison population in England and Wales in the 20 years between his time as home secretary in the 90s and his present appointment as lord chancellor. He said the prison-building programme proposed by the outgoing government was unaffordable and that he would be seeking reductions in prisoners to save costs, suggesting a reinvigoration of alternative, community-based punishments.
But will the coalition dare do this if it outrages the rightwing press? Shortly after Clarke's speech, prisons minister Crispin Blunt quoted Winston Churchill's declaration that a humane prison system was "one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country", and voiced his support for the probation service, for restorative justice, for education and for drug treatment. The next day, after a Daily Mail headline claiming that the taxpayer would be paying for "parties in prison", No 10 made clear its unease with these policy positions.
We know what works. Prison works for serious offenders. But there are far too many people on short sentences, who will come out unreformed (70% reoffend within a year), without new skills other than those they have been taught by fellow criminals, without drug therapy and without any state intervention to prevent them returning to the gangs and drug dealers with whom they previously associated.
The Ministry of Justice has sponsored alternative schemes, such as the Intensive Alternative to Custody in Manchester, which specialise in young men who would otherwise go to prison for up to six months. I visited this programme in July for the thinktank Make Justice Work. These offenders are required to undertake training for employment and coaching for job interviews; their families are offered support; they are required to stay alcohol and drug-free; they must take part in visible community payback schemes; they are likely to be directly involved in restorative justice interventions with victims; and they are subject to curfew.
If they don't comply, they go back to court and then to prison. And some choose to do just that, because this is a much more demanding regime. But a lot of them don't, and go on to get qualifications and jobs – and they don't reoffend.
Similarly we should no longer be talking about pilots of restorative justice. We know that it reduces reoffending and that it is particularly effective with violent offences, and it is well known that improving prisoners' education, especially literacy, is a help. But all this requires money, though much lower levels of expenditure than prison.
So the first question is whether, amid the cuts, Clarke can fund the expansion of these alternative schemes. If the MoJ is unable to divert some of the savings into community sentences, education, drugs treatment and gang avoidance, the future will be bleak indeed for those involved in the criminal justice system.
But even if he could, the second question is whether the government will allow him. Such an investment would require political nerve of the sort for which Clarke is famous, but the government is not yet tested. Does it have the courage to face down the inevitable anger of the tabloids? Time will tell, but if Blunt's slapping-down is anything to go by, the signs are not encouraging.
Read the original article here.