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Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (1) Prisons policy

By Tim Montgomerie

Yesterday I identified five very early reasons why Cameron could be hopeful about re-election. I identify another on Seats and candidates today; the incumbency factor. Today I begin a seven part series looking at Cameron's vulnerabilities.

AchillesThis morning's Mail reports that Ken Clarke's sentencing review may reduce prison numbers by 7,000. That is quite a turnaround for a party that, before the election, promised to increase prison numbers to 100,000.

The prisons works policy was the outstanding policy success of the John Major era. Michael Howard's decision to put more people away was the decisive reason for the reversal of the post-WWII increase in crime. Better technologies (eg for car and home security) played their part but prison really did work.

Prison serves four main purposes: deterrent, punishment, incarceration and rehabilitation. Howard's insight was to recognise that incarceration was key. While repeat and serious offenders were in jail they could not commit any more offences. Simples. Crime fell because the criminals who were guilty of a disproportionate number of offences were behind bars and unable to cause the public harm.

It's true, as Justice Secretary Ken Clarke claims, that Britain has a relatively high imprisonment rate per head of overall population. That's the wrong statistic, however. Dr David Green of Civitas has argued that the key statistic is prison population per number of crimes and, on that measure, Britain's prisons population is actually below the EU average because we have such high levels of crime.

Green also points out that persistent offenders aren't being jailed. "In 2008," he wrote on CentreRight, "criminals who had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions were given custody in only 40% of cases when they were convicted of a serious (indictable) crime."

Green goes on to point out that community sentences - Clarke's preferred policy - have 91% failure rates. Additionally, while offenders are on community sentences the public is obviously not as safe as when offenders are behind bars.

Ken Clarke is obviously right to improve rehabilitation rates. ConHome has long been a supporter of the reabilitation revolution that Nick Herbert MP drafted in opposition. Paying prison governors by results might produce the kind of innovation in humane prisoner education that might reduce terrible rates of recidivism.

Overall, however, the decision to reduce prison numbers is wrong. Prison numbers should only be cut once the rebabilitation revolution is delivering results. Cutting numbers now is wrong because it is a breach of a manifesto promise. It is wrong because it starts to undo one of the Conservative Party's greatest policy successes of modern times. It is wrong because community sentences don't protect the public.

Ed Balls may be shadowing Theresa May but you can expect the Shadow Home Secretary to shout from the rooftops, constituency-by-constituency, when offenders on one of Ken Clarke's community programmes injure the public. The Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph and, importantly, local newspapers will provide him with plenty of space for his message.


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