Banana republics often celebrate a change of ruler with an amnesty. A show of clemency atones for the misdeeds of power. Hence the propriety of a prime minister who has shamelessly courted popularity by "locking 'em up and throwing away the key" marking his departure with a gesture of mercy. "Oh hell," says Tony Blair at the wreckage of his prisons policy, "why not let a thousand of them go free?"
One reason could be that Blair's new justice minister, Lord Falconer, was saying last month that he would do no such thing. He had enough trouble with escapers, fugitive asylum seekers and Asbo defaulters without finding himself hung, drawn and quartered by the tabloids because a crook on early release had beaten someone over the head. Now he looks a complete fool.
Falconer must have seen this coming. Last year the judges, including the lord chief justice, pleaded for more non-custodial sentences and fewer life tariffs, to relieve prison overcrowding. Falconer grabbed cheap media plaudits by slapping the judges down. He sat mute as the prison population soared past the 80,000 mark, the highest in British history. The Home Office scrabbled around looking for prison ships, disused army camps and police cells. It was a grim epitaph on 10 years of Blair's "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".
This week Falconer has been confronted with more serious trouble than bleeding-heart judges. He faced a concerted revolt by prison governors who have refused to stack men three to a cell. Last summer they privately warned the home secretary, John Reid, that his idea of transferring low-risk prisoners to open prisons, rather than releasing them early, would increase absconding (for which they would be blamed). Now more than 500 convicts are being "locked out" of jail and sent back to police cells, at roughly the same cost as a night at the Ritz. According to the head of the prison governors' association, this was "simply and solely to ensure that a minister does not have to make an unpalatable decision". Falconer duly made his predictable U-turn. It is government at its most irresponsible.
De Tocqueville remarked that a nation's prisons were the best test of its advance down the road to civilisation. On this test, Britain is wretchedly backward. Not only does it imprison far more of its citizens than any other country in Europe, it imprisons for more offences and for longer terms, and is obsessed with incarcerating women and children. When Blair came to power there were 129 shoplifters in prison, now there are 1,400; back then there were fewer than 4,000 life prisoners, now there are 6,431 - more than in Germany, France, Italy and Turkey combined.
The female prison population has doubled under Blair, dominated by drug offences in which women are usually the dupes of others. Two-thirds of these women have dependent children. As for under-18s, Britain imprisons 23 for every 100,000 of the population, as against six in France, two in Spain and 0.2 in Finland. This cannot reflect innate criminality, only a vindictive judicial system and a government wholly unconcerned with reoffending - now running at two-thirds within two years (compared with 50% in 1992). Penal policy in Britain is an inhumane shambles.
Nor is there any sign of Falconer reversing Gordon Brown's cut of £80m a year in prison spending from 2008, leading to cuts in education and rehabilitation and thus to increased reoffending. Yet the solution is simple. It is to do what the lord chief justice demanded and reduce the number of people in prison. This will happen only if the government is ready to implement the conclusion of its own Carter report in 2003: that "there is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime".
The so-called risk factor in reducing the prison population must be judged by asking those who know prisons. The last lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, reckoned that only half those in jail constituted an "unavoidable minimum" that needed to be put away. One in 10 prisoners is mentally ill and should not be in prison at all. One in seven is a foreign first-time offender (one in five women), almost invariably for drug offences and suitable for deportation to a prison abroad. Half of new prisoners serve sentences of six months or less, which suggests a marginal decision between custody and community punishment. Yet six months is enough to wreck a career, a family and a life, and thus ensure reoffending.
The chief concern of the public, always cited by politicians, is violent or sexual offending. But there are only 18,000 such convicts in prison. Meanwhile, the Home Office reports that 55% of the jail population is related in whole or part to the failure of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Reforming this act along lines familiar elsewhere in Europe holds the key to reducing the prison population, yet ministers are terrified of "the press". Nor are the Tories any better. Their crime spokesman, David Davis, always refers to crime as "violent" and seems ashamed that Blair locks up 30% more criminals than did the Tories.
The bookshelves groan with tomes on the "de-socialisation" of Britain. Misbehaviour that would once have been handled at the family, street and community levels is now delegated upwards to agencies of the state. Young people whose discipline in other countries is a prime charge on schools, churches, sports clubs and communal authority, are in Britain left to the police. Yet the police answer not to any community, but to Whitehall statistical targets and the ministerial demand for good headlines (see David Blunkett's memoirs, passim). Crime in Britain has thus shifted conceptually from being an issue of social reform to being one of repression, and the figures show it.
This is not a failure of the modern age, since the disparity between Britain and countries overseas is so glaring. It is a failure of British government. It will not correct itself until a government takes decisions on sentencing that ministers know to be right in private, but currently lack the guts to implement in public.