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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Penal reform a key policy flashpoint for Lib-Con coalition

Mounting pressure from campaigners to halt the billion-pound prison-building programme promises to test new government
Justice secretary Ken Clarke

Justice secretary Ken Clarke has been critical of the rise in prison numbers in recent years. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Penal reformers are stepping up pressure on the Lib-Con coalition to halt the billion-pound prison-building programme, pointing out that in recent years the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, has repeatedly criticised the rise in prison numbers as unsustainable.

The future of the programme is a key policy flashpoint between the two coalition partners, and one of the main issues to be thrashed out before the detailed policy agreement between them is published in the next few weeks.

A Prison Reform Trust briefing published today says that when Clarke was last in charge of jails, as home secretary in 1993, the prison population stood at 44,628; it has now topped 85,000. Clarke told the Commons in June 2007 that over the previous 10 years four home secretaries had responded to media pressure on crime by "taking away discretion on sentencing from the courts" and almost doubling the prison population "without paying the slightest heed to the inevitable moment when they would hit the buffers and there was no accommodation". He said a change of culture was needed to ensure that discretion was given back to the courts to ensure that prison was used only for "violent, dangerous and recidivist criminals in conditions in which there was some hope that some of them will be rehabilitated".

The PRT also cites a Commons debate in March 2007 in which the now justice secretaryClarke warned that the '"fantastic rate" in the rise in the prison population was unsustainable and would lead to a "tremendous squeeze on spending in every other part of the criminal justice system". He also observed that the rapid rise in prison numbers was partly a result ofhome secretaries trying "desperately to get the right headlines in all the most popular rightwing newspapers".

The new coalition justice team, which includes Conservatives Nick Herbert and Crispin Blunt, is the ministerial team responsible for prisons and probation and inherits a prison-building programme that will increase the number of jail places from 85,000 now to 96,000 by 2014. The PRT says that this will give England and Wales an incarceration rate of 178 per 100,000 .

The penal reformers say there is broad agreement between the Lib Dem and Conservative manifestos in schemes to get children out of trouble, tackle youth crime early, divert addicts and mentally ill people away from the jail system and improve rehabilitation.

But there is a fundamental clash over sentencing and the prison building programme. David Cameron has called for longer sentences and wants to introduce automatic prison sentences for carrying a knife and to give magistrates the power to jail offenders for 12 instead of the current six months.

The Lib Dems, however, had promised to introduce a "presumption against short-term sentences of less than six months" and cancel the government's billion-pound prison building programme.

Juliet Lyon, the PRT's director, said: "As the new justice secretary has previously acknowledged, the current growth in prison numbers is unsustainable. A moratorium on prison building would be a first step in reversing the disastrous legacy of the past two decades which has seen the prison population almost double, while rates of reoffending have rocketed."

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