Leading article: Released from a punitive orthodoxy

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One of the most baleful political doctrines of the past two decades finally appears to be crumbling. Seven Home Secretaries over the past 17 years have paid obeisance to the notion that "prison works". From Michael Howard to Alan Johnson, they have all argued that custodial sentences are the only moral and effective response to those who break society's laws. But yesterday the new Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, took that orthodoxy and trampled all over it with his Hush Puppies.

According to Mr Clarke, "just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England". Observing that "it is virtually impossible to do anything productive with offenders on short sentences", he called for more "rigorously enforced community sentences". If those sentiments sound familiar, it is because they could have been plucked from any number of editorials published in this newspaper in recent years.

Mr Clarke stressed the economic rationale for halting the inexorable expansion of our prison population, at present the highest in western Europe. This is a shrewd tactic. Such has been the hysteria of the Conservative Party over the deficit that its MPs cannot easily fight against proposals that will reduce public spending, devoted as many of them are to custodial sentences.

And the cost argument is certainly strong. Notoriously, it is more expensive to send someone to prison for a year than to educate a child at Eton. But the truth is that reducing the number of prisoners serving short sentences would have been the right policy even if the Government's coffers had been overflowing. Cramming 60,000 relatively minor offenders into our creaking prison system each year does nothing to make the public safer; if anything it achieves the opposite, since 60 per cent go on to reoffend. Mr Clarke's proposals to use voluntary and private sector organisations to reduce recidivism deserve support. But by far the most important change will be firm directions to the courts to put fewer people into custody.

The challenges ahead should not be underestimated. It will require considerable political will for the Coalition to stick with this policy when the right-wing press, as it inevitably will, starts to publicise cases of criminals who have reoffended under community sentences. There will be pressure in Parliament, too. Some unreconstructed Conservative backbenchers are already beginning to protest. Mr Howard voiced concern last night. And Labour, to its shame, seems determined to oppose this progressive policy change, showing that it has learnt nothing from its failures in criminal justice while in office.

A danger lies in the manner in which this policy transition is managed too. Mr Clarke's admission at the end of his speech yesterday that there will be no increase in investment in non-custodial sentencing does not bode well. Any attempt to impose this policy on the cheap risks discrediting it in the public's eyes. But yesterday's breakthrough is not to be underestimated. For a Cabinet minister to stand up and say that prison is not the answer to every crime was a significant moment, and one to be savoured by all those who have campaigned for so long for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

Mr Clarke cuts an interesting figure in this coalition. Some presumed that his job at the Justice Department would be one final, unhurried, lap of honour for this political veteran. But in his first public speech Mr Clarke has opened the door to a potential revolution in our criminal justice system. And in the Liberal Democrats he has allies for his pragmatic, reformist and pro-European instincts. May Mr Clarke continue in the impressive manner in which he has begun his latest stint in government.

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