Party Conference season is upon us and with a general election only seven months away, what better time than to take a look at the two main parties’ plans for criminal justice should they win the hearts and minds of the electorate (or at least be the least objectionable option) and seize power.
The Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan MP, had the misfortune of delivering his speech the day after Ed Miliband gave his anecdotal account of the views of those he had accosted in various parks and cities across the country, which may explain why little attention was paid to it.
The main problem with the speech was its lack of detail. It meandered from autobiographical account to political point scoring without much substance on the issues facing the criminal justice system before a bullet point recital of various although unconnected policies.
On criminal justice Sadiq Khan said:
“We will bring in the country’s first ever victims’ law.
Transforming the culture in the police and in our courts. Giving a voice to the most vulnerable. And we’ll do all we can to stop people becoming victims in the first place. Punishing criminals but reforming them too.
But we’ll have to pick up the pieces of the Government’s almighty mess.
Prisons in crisis, courts in chaos and probation in meltdown. Dangerous offenders absconding on a weekly basis. Report after report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons painting a picture of a system on the edge of collapse.”
One might easily forget the state of prison overcrowding, lack of rehabilitative services, and the lack of resources for parole and probation which existed under the previous Labour Government, but one cannot deny there are currently serious issues which must be addressed.
The way in which these problems are to be resolved by a prospective Labour Government is unspecified. ‘Transforming the culture in the police and in our courts’, from what to what? ‘We’ll do all we can’…rather vague. ‘Punishing criminals but reforming them too’…a very complex balance but no mention as to how this may be achieved, will there be a greater emphasis on community sentences, or the introduction of a punitive system with aftercare? We simply do not know.
The main policy announcements were somewhat disparate in that they ranged from constitutional reform to electoral campaigning: a defence of the Human Rights Act (something which I fear is a debate too grand for the special constrictions under which I am currently placed, and will therefore receive greater discussion at a later date); repeal of the Lobby Act (which limits donations and the actions which can be taken by lobbyists during political campaigns); lowering the voting age to 16; and the greater devolution of powers to local communities.
A welcome announcement was the intention to hold privately contracted companies to the same standards of transparency demanded of the public sector. This is of particular importance given the recent overcharging scandal, and the important role that such firms play within the delivery of justice within this country.
At the Conservative Party Conference held last week in Birmingham, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling MP, had a slightly easier task than his Labour counterpart. Speaking much closer to what may be considered ‘conference prime-time’ it is not too hard to imagine what a room full of Conservatives want to hear (with some exceptions I am sure) when it comes to law and order, and they were not disappointed.
To summarise the content of the speech: a list of achievements; tougher sentences; more prison places; a stricter prison regime; improved resettlement and support; more education and work in prisons; and a much needed new focus on mental health in the prison estate.
Grayling heralded the assertion that:
“Under this Government if you commit a crime, you are more likely to be caught and charged. You are more likely to go to prison. You will go there for longer. And it will cost the hard-working tax payer less to keep you there.”
He also restated his commitment to amend the current rules about release on licence. Under new proposals, a prisoner will have to prove they pose no further threat to the public or of committing further offences prior to their release being sanctioned, instead of the current automatic release on licence at the mid-point of their sentence. Thankfully Grayling also announced that by May there will be 3,000 more adult male prison places than when they came to office; most convenient as their intention is to keep many offenders locked up for longer.
The Conservatives must learn from the mistakes of Labour in their introduction of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences, where the knock-on effects of releasing fewer prisoners caused havoc throughout the prison estate and placed an unsustainable burden on the Parole Board. The benefit of the Conservative change is that the prisoners will have to be released when they reach the end of their sentences, and will not be held indeterminately, as was the case with the IPP sentence.
The prison experience has also become far more punitive. The removal of video consoles from Young Offender Institutions and the banning of televised football in prisons, but two examples of the new punitive regime.
These are core Conservative principles, as Grayling said; the Conservative Party “should always be the Party of law and order.” As such their policies are rarely liberal and a tougher stance on offenders was roundly applauded.
However an increase in the prison population is not something to be welcomed, particularly when the crime rate is falling. Prison should be reserved for those who deserve it or those for whom it is necessary in order to incapacitate. Prison is not the answer to many offenders’ indiscretions and a return to mass incarceration for lesser crimes would be most unwelcome, not to mention potentially damaging to the prospects of those affected.
This is all a far cry from Ken Clarke’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ announced with such vigour just a few short years ago. The punitive thunder was however tempered by the new focus on mental health, a ‘through the gate’ resettlement and monitoring scheme encompassing those serving a sentence of less than 12 months and greater education and work in prisons.
The future under the Conservatives could be summarised thus: if you commit an offence you are more likely to be sent to prison; you will stay there for longer; it will be less comfortable than previously; but there will be more help in terms of education, mental illness, skills and resettlement.
Could we really expect anything other than a tough on crime approach so close to a general election? I suppose not, but at least there’s some recognition that punishment alone will not serve as the only solution to crime.