Leading article: Crime and the need for joined-up punishment


Among New Labour's most enduring catchphrases was Tony Blair's neatly balanced pledge to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. It offered reassurance to those fearful that a Labour government would be soft on offenders, while promising those of a more old Labour persuasion that social deprivation would also be tackled.

More than eight years on, however, any mention of "tough on crime..." is greeted as often as not with cynicism. While Britain has a record number of people locked up, and proportionally more people in prison than most other countries in Europe, few inroads have been made into rates of recidivism. As the Home Secretary admitted yesterday, more than half of all crime is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system before.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that, while prison cuts crime by keeping criminals off the streets, it does little to discourage them from committing further offences when they are released. Recent high-profile cases, such as the murder of the City banker, John Monckton, by a multiple offender supposedly under supervision, only undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system even further.

This is the context in which Charles Clarke yesterday presented his "Five Year Strategy for Protecting the Public and Reducing Re-offending" - a title which is as indicative of the Government's political concern about public fear of crime as about its desire to cut rates of re-offending. It is not hard to appreciate, though, that a significant cut in the rate of re-offending could be one of the most effective ways of reducing crime overall.

The problem, as always, is how to do this. And this strategy contains few startlingly original ideas. The proposal that each prisoner should have a "named offender manager" with overall responsibility for him (or her) is as obvious as it is sensible. The call for more community prisons to enable prisoners to retain their family ties represents another welcome return to localism (after Patricia Hewitt's support for cottage hospitals).

Other recommendations presuppose the co-operation of other agencies. The number of mentally ill people in prison is a national disgrace that must also be addressed by the health authorities. Too many people are held for too long on remand: measures are needed to speed up court procedures. For drug addicts, treatment or rehabilitation must be the priority. Prison should be reserved for serious criminals; it should not be a repository of last resort for the helpless and forgotten.

In this respect, the Home Secretary's desire to see more offenders serve their sentences in the community is commendable - though we dispute the need for T-shirts that would identify offenders while they work. The wider use of programmes devised by charities and specialist voluntary organisations for rehabilitation, education and training is also to be welcomed, as is the emphasis on co-operation with employers' organisations, housing agencies and local authorities to ease the transition after release. We would have liked, though, to see greater emphasis on restorative justice schemes that encourage offenders to make good, so far as possible, some of the damage they have caused.

The overriding difficulty with all the proposals, however, is not that they require money: to the extent that they work, they will pay for themselves. It is that they require co-ordination between different authorities and organisations - and co-ordination, as we know, can be even more elusive than Treasury funding. Mr Clarke will need to apply all his personal determination and all his political clout if this five-year strategy is to bring the improvements it promises.

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