Leading article: A courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom

Related Topics

For many years it has been abundantly clear to those working in the criminal justice system that the slogan "prison works" is nonsense. Even some Labour ministers, who publicly subscribed to the doctrine, privately accepted that the doubling of our prison population over the past two decades has been counterproductive.

What has always been lacking is a self-confident government minister prepared to challenge the conventional wisdom and to change course. Mercifully, in the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, we now have such a minister.

The green paper he published yesterday proposes to restrict indeterminate sentences, extend the use of bail for suspects and to award greater sentence reductions for defendants who pleaded guilty early. Mr Clarke also wants to make community sentences a more credible alternative to custody, by toughening up work schemes.

The Justice Secretary has also ditched the populist Tory pledge from the election that anyone convicted of carrying a knife must face an automatic jail sentence. The relatively modest immediate target is to cut Britain's 85,000 prison population by 3,000 by 2014-15. But Mr Clarke has begun the important work of turning the penal oil tanker around.

There is immense pressure on the £8.9bn Justice Department budget, which is facing a 25 per cent cut over the next four years. The fact that it costs the public purse upwards of £25,000 to lock up a single prisoner for a year itself provides a compelling argument for sending fewer offenders to jail. But to Mr Clarke's credit, he is not making the case for his reforms purely on financial grounds. He recognises that unthinkingly cramming our jails was the wrong policy even when the state coffers were full.

Advocates of prison cite the fall in the crime rate over the period in which the prison population has been rising. Yet the crime rate has fallen in other Western countries over periods in which prison populations have been falling. Moreover, 60 per cent of inmates held in British jails for a year or less go on to re-offend. The National Audit Office estimates that this costs Britain between £7bn and 10bn a year. It is surely impossible to square this figure with the idea that "prison works".

If there are reservations about Mr Clarke's proposals, it is that the prison budget is facing such severe cuts that rehabilitation programmes risk being under-funded. Yet sending fewer offenders to prison ought to create a virtuous circle: less overcrowded prisons will mean that the ratio of staff to offenders will be lower. A smaller population should enable more of the prison's budget to be spent on tackling drug and alcohol abuse and on other rehabilitation schemes. This is one area of public spending where it is possible to envisage more being done for less.

The political fetishisation of sending offenders to prison for longer periods – which has held sway ever since the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, came up with his notorious slogan – has been a disaster. We have ended up warehousing petty criminals, the mentally ill and those addicted to narcotics at huge public expense. A fixation on punishment has turned rehabilitation into an afterthought.

The fact that Mr Clarke is a member of a government that includes the Liberal Democrats, who have long advocated prison reform, probably strengthened the Justice Secretary's hand around the Cabinet table when it came to overturning this traditional Conservative policy. But that should not diminish the praise that is due to the Justice Secretary for having the courage and clarity of thought to begin to rectify a mistake.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon and her former boss Alex Salmond  

I voted Yes in the referendum – but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for the Tory-esque SNP

Alasdair Clark

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power