Michael Howard is fiercely proud of his record as Home Secretary so it was no surprise that he quickly became the most senior Conservative to take issue with Kenneth Clarke for his first speech yesterday on criminal justice.
But the press headlines and a lot of the reaction from the right of the Conservative Party has run far ahead of the content. Though light on policy detail, this was a bold speech, but perhaps not the one some penal reform groups had hoped to hear – that prisons were to be closed, short-term sentences abolished next Tuesday, and billions from the prisons budget diverted to social enterprises.
The speech at King’s College was important politically in laying down some markers on sentencing, courts and legal aid reform, and spelling out the fiscal reality facing the Ministry of Justice in much the same way as Theresa May has had to do with the Home Office – both departments facing 25% cuts over four years. By next spring, big decisions will have been taken on the size of the courts estate, the reform of legal aid and the sentencing of offenders.
These decisions demand a genuine debate about how to cut crime and keep the public safe when the Government has less money to spend on conventional law and order measures. What can be safely sacrificed without hampering effective crime reduction? Unfortunately, the obvious savings that can and must be realised early on – from court closures, estate sales and rationalising back office functions – are not where the real money is.
There is scope for big savings if – as Clarke indicated – wholesale reform of the legal aid system is in play. Looking at the scope of civil legal aid provision, and even – he hinted – more use of before-the-event insurance, could all yield big savings. But in a department required to make £2.3 billion cuts, even this is not enough. The prisons budget cannot and will not be immune.
Exactly where the Prison Service cuts will fall in the next few years is still being discussed internally, but the Ministry of Justice has clearly decided that it will not let the prison system expand uncontrollably. Howard has attacked the suggestion that short-term sentences could be abolished, but this was not in the speech, and is anyway opposed by David Cameron. Clarke wanted more “intelligent sentencing” and more emphasis on reduced reoffending and alternatives to custody, where they are proven to work.
This element of his speech was not some radical new departure – it just sounded fresh coming from Ken. Strong proposals like payment by results for reduced reoffending and a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ to cut the prison population over time were developed by Nick Herbert in Opposition, and restated recently in a speech he gave to Policy Exchange . Both have lots of potential if the policy is properly developed and real measures of success can be determined.
Oddly, Clarke admitted to having no “competitive objective” of a lower prison population, but even if you accept the arguments for prison, it actually does make sense fiscally and socially to have a goal of imprisoning fewer people. The Californian example of grossly overcrowded prisons which consume more of the state’s budget than higher education is not one to follow. But unless Clarke is contemplating more drastic proposals like restricting the sentencing options of magistrates, limiting the use of indeterminate sentences, or reintroducing early release, then new ways need to be found of stemming the flow into prison.
The problem is timing. Sentencing reforms that could help reduce the prison population take time to feed through, and will not become legislation before next summer. In the meantime, official projections of prison population growth have typically underestimated the real figure, so Ministers often end up with less time to provide the new capacity – a further 9,000 places by 2014 – than they planned. This was Jack Straw’s constant headache.
Attempting to cut the prison population by restricting magistrates’ use of short-term sentences would not help much because they are not really where the problem lies (prisoners serving less than 6 months make up only 10% of the prison population). Real progress would come from cracking the perennial problem of ineffective community sentences.
It is the failure of the Probation Service and community sentences that leads to the glut of short-term recidivists cycling through the system and this inflates the overall prisoner numbers. The Government needs to get serious about trialling new non-custodial methods and devising a tough and visible alternative – delivered by the private sector – that sentencers can trust and the public see as credible.
The policy decisions that get prison numbers down are rarely quick and simple. The prison population in England and Wales is partly a reflection of our high crime rate, and it cannot be reduced by sentencing changes alone. It needs a strategy to reduce overall reoffending rates through effective rehabilitation and resettlement programmes, and more focus on crime prevention and tough non-custodial punishments to reduce the flow into the prison system. That way, you cut the prison population by cutting crime, and not the other way around.