Ken Clarke’s critique of the longstanding 'prison works' orthodoxy has received considerable media coverage. The Justice Secretary’s reform agenda has been divisive but it was widely welcomed by many working in the criminal justice sector – including the organisations in the Fear Factory coalition.
This growing third sector coalition is calling for cross-party commitment to creating and implementing an effective, long term Criminal Justice strategy based on evidence. It was formed as a result of a documentary film by the same name.
The film explored the crisis in our criminal justice system that has led to a record prison population. It uncovered how disproportionate fear of crime, and notably a fear of young people, has been stoked by the media and politicians in a “law and order arms race”.
It was that very arms race that Jack Straw attempted to rekindle in the aftermath of Ken Clarke’s announcements as Justice Secretary. The title of Jack Straw’s article in the Daily Mail was ‘Mr Clarke and the Lib Dems are wrong. Prison DOES work - and I helped prove it.’ A backlash for which he was castigated by a former head of the prison service, Martin Narey, at a Labour Party Conference fringe event.
With this backdrop, Ed Miliband’s election as the new leader of the Labour party could represent a positive result for penal reform. This is a view that has been expressed by Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform among others. The temptation for Ed Miliband would be to outflank the government on the right by returning to New Labour tough on crime rhetoric. However, Ed Miliband’s position seems to differ strongly from that of Jack Straw:
"I don't think we should try to out-right the right on crime" ...."A lot of what [Clarke] is doing is motivated by budget cuts; but he is opening up an opportunity for us to redefine part of the debate about criminal justice.”
An article by Ed Miliband in the Sunday Telegraph suggested that Ken Clarke’s proposals on criminal justice reform are one of the areas of public policy where he will be largely supportive. This is an opportunity to create an amnesty on the arms race. My hope is that Ken Clarke will hold his nerve and that Ed Miliband will help to build a new political consensus on penal policy. Robert Patrick