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Christian Guy: Don’t write off Ken Clarke just yet - the rehabilitation revolution remains his greatest challenge and opportunity

Picture 2 Christian Guy is Co-author of Locked Up Potential, a prison reform report published by the Centre for Social Justice.

It seems last week’s decision to privatise Birmingham prison will not go unchallenged.  The POA has branded the move ‘disgraceful’ and we read that the Justice Secretary has troops on standby should officers decide to break the law to go on strike.  Debates about the role of profit making companies in social policy, never mind the justice system, are bound to rage again.  The pros and cons are well-rehearsed but, ultimately, the private sector should play its part in advancing the urgent cause of prison reform. 

Paying down the deficit is a core aim for the Coalition and rightly so; there is nothing socially just about dumping our debt on tomorrow’s taxpayer.  But Britain also needs a social recovery and the Government’s underrated prison agenda is integral to sparking one.

Prison is essential and serves three core purposes.  For many years the first two of these have been clear and generally met: prisons should protect the public, and they should serve just punishment on sentenced offenders by removing their liberty.  But although, ultimately, it is sentencers not ministers who take such decisions, there are legitimate public concerns about the Government’s plan to sustain these functions and keep us safe. 

How, for example, will the fine intention of diverting more mentally ill offenders into secure treatment be achieved in the context of fewer beds?  If community orders are to be increasingly favoured over ineffective short custodial sentences, when and how will they be strengthened and improved?  They certainly need to be.  And which effective interventions are to be deployed for young people who carry knives, even if their possession is a mark of fear and tragic false security?

Without credible answers to these questions and others, crime will increase and prisons will burst.  Sentencers want serious alternatives added to their meagre menu.  But if Ken Clarke and his team offer them – and promising ideas are out there – over time crime could fall and consequently, the prison population would reduce.  

Yet it is the third purpose of prison, rehabilitation, which has been so damagingly dimmed by successive Governments.  A definition vacuum has been created in prison leadership and strategy. This lack of direction matters: that two of every three prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release is a national crisis.  It is fuelling a shockingly expensive revolving door criminal justice system.

In this regard the Coalition’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ (rarely recognised as distinct from the aforementioned sentencing debate) is simultaneously the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for the Secretary of State.  Building a second chance society has been a core conservative tradition in recent centuries, but rehabilitation in this context is not simply an honourable pursuit.  It is a social and economic necessity. 

Look at those who fill our prison cells.  Every crime committed is an inexcusable choice and deserves to be punished, however, a significant number of those in jail have a background the majority of the population does not.  For instance, a considerable number have been in local authority care, many more knew only chaos at school and in the home.   Significant numbers have two or more mental health disorders, more than half have the reading and writing ability of an eleven year old child and a similar percentage lives with a drug or alcohol addiction.  These factors are no rites of passage – some in Britain’s boardrooms were dealt a similar hand and beat it – but they do matter. 

There is also economic urgency to reform; we are all paying for this failure.  Annual crime committed by those who were once in prison amounts to more than £12 billion.  We literally cannot afford more of the same.

Contained within the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ are some fresh and innovative ideas to redress this waste.  Many of these build on the Centre for Social Justice’s report Locked Up Potential, led by Jonathan Aitken.  As part of this ‘revolution’ prisons will finally become places of purposeful and realistic work – prisoners should go to bed tired at the end of each day like the hard working taxpayer does.  And the wages they earn should help to compensate victims. 

It is right that drug addicts will finally confront their dependency and move towards full recovery – it is appalling to hear of prisoners entering prison drug-free and leaving an addict.  The public agrees that criminals with mental health problems need treatment, as well as punishment, so let us find alternatives to dumping them in prison.  And the looming cuts mean it is surely sensible to pay charities and social enterprises based on the tangible outcomes they deliver, not the boxes they tick. 

This is no panacea but nor is it a soft option.  These are hard-hitting proposals which strike at the heart of recent failure on crime.  We enter an extremely challenging period for criminal justice, but there is a rare opportunity to emerge the other side with fewer victims of crime and less re-offending.  This reform, if taken as part of a broader social justice package to strengthen families, reform welfare and transform education, should be given a chance.


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