Howard's dismal legacy - Straw's great opportunity

The jails are full to bursting, but with a sensible penal policy, Jack Straw could divert millions into crime prevention
The governor of Armley prison, Leeds, surveys the wreckage of any kind of policy of rehabilitation in his jail with growing despair. Prison numbers nationally are at their highest ever - up nearly 20,000 since Michael Howard took over as Home Secretary, and rising by around 300 a month. To cope, we have even bought a prison ship from America. And, almost certainly, during the election campaign prisoners will spill over into police cells, which the Government swore would never happen again.

Yesterday, Howard's final act of vandalism, the Crime (Sentencing) Bill, was nodded through the Commons, with a Lib Dem/Labour amendment that only slightly softens its disastrous impact.

Armley, like all the other jails, says Governor Rannoch Daly, is full beyond bursting, with all single cells doubled up. "Prison running costs have been cut to pay for the prison building programme," he says.

His staff has been cut (1,300 officers cut nationally in the last year), the therapeutic groups have been cut, education is cut (available to only a third of those who need it). The very idea of useful, purposeful, improving activity has died in our jails. The prison workshop is mainly closed now because officers spend all their time bussing overflowing prisoners to spare places in Wormwood Scrubs and the South.

That, says Daly, is a calamity. In faraway jails, prisoners lose touch with their family, work and the outside world. The probation service, which helps to preserve home links, is being cut nationally by 29 per cent, although those who leave prison without family ties are six times more likely to reoffend. Watching, appalled, the passage of the Crime Bill, Daly says, in the argot of his trade, "I'm not Strangeways shroud- waving, but in some jail somewhere there will be a last a straw soon."

To remind you: the Bill imposes automatic life sentences on second-time violent and sex offenders, a minimum seven years for third-time Class A drug dealers, and three years for third-time domestic burglars. The Lib Dem/Labour amendment allows judges to vary it for drug dealers and burglars in special cases. It in effect ends early release, instructing judges to give precisely the sentence they expect prisoners to serve.

What effect will it have on the exploding prison population? The Government asserts that it will add 11,000 more. All the professionals in the field, the prison governors and the Penal Affairs Consortium (the umbrella for all the reforming groups) regard that as a ludicrous under-estimate. They reckon it will be around 24,000 more prisoners. Richard Tilt, head of the Prison Service, has said 25 new prisons will be needed over the next 12 years.

What a dismal legacy Jack Straw will inherit. What will he do? Well, he does not have to implement most of the Bill at all. It can simply sit and rot on the shelf, most of its clauses superseded by a new and better Criminal Justice Bill of his own. This will be devoted to what really matters - reducing crime and getting the best value out of the vast sums spent on it: pounds 10bn a year goes on police, courts and prisons. How? By careful study of research and trusting in the best scientific evidence, wilfully ignored by Howard. Evidence-based medicine is the name of the game in the NHS. Now we need evidence-based crime and sentencing policy, treating it clinically, forensically.

Straw will have more chance to do great good than any other incoming minister. He will be virtually the only one not handcuffed to a desperately inadequate budget. Why? Because if he were to reduce prison numbers to the level reached by Douglas Hurd's reforms, immediately before Michael Howard took over, he could save a cascade of cash. Returning to the Hurd levels (hardly days of wild, dangerous liberalism), Straw would save some pounds 480m a year, every year. That is what Howard's extra 20,000 prisoners cost.

Now imagine the preventive programmes he could buy with that - the hopeless families helped while their children are still small, the lost and wild children caught early with special help and education, family centres, after-school and youth schemes on disaster estates, young offenders taken in hand constructively straight after their first crime, prison regimes designed to educate, train and treat. The best probation schemes can stop reoffending by up to 50 per cent more than prison sentences.

There is good evidence about what works: anger-management, challenging offending behaviour, education, drug and alcohol projects, teaching people to think about their actions - soft stuff maybe, but effective. Take a prison programme monitored closely for 14 years in Massachusetts - it reduced reoffending by an astounding two-thirds. It gave prison governors discretion over releasing people, and control over budgets so they could choose to save on their prison budget and spend on letting prisoners out early with extra probation support, setting them up in projects and work, back home in the community, only letting go of them once they were safely settled. This intensive care and treatment cost no more, because offenders spent less time in prison. Contrast that with the current insanity in the UK of cutting the probation service (which works) by 29 per cent and building 25 more prisons (which don't).

So how could Jack Straw do it? This is the really difficult part, for it cannot be done quietly, by sleight of hand. In other departments, ministers can say one thing and do another - talk tough, act soft; or talk generous while acting mean. But the Home Secretary speaks in public with the voice of the law. Judges and magistrates tune their sentencing policy finely to his words.

Howard had not introduced any draconian sentencing laws until yesterday: the prison population simply rose at his bidding. By shouting "Prison works!", by stirring up the tabloids, by exhorting the judiciary directly, he changed the penal climate, and the judges responded. They did the same when Hurd called for them to keep petty offenders out of prison. Now they will be waiting to draw their cue from Jack Straw. What he says in public they will obey. He cannot talk tough and do good by stealth. His words will be his most important actions.

So, with an avalanche of an election victory behind him, will Straw dare to brave the wrath of the law-and-order lobby he has courted so assiduously? Well, why not? What is the point of the most stupendous electoral landslide if not to do what you want at last?

I suspect that the post-election Straw will speak in very different tones to those we shall hear during the campaign. After all, if he uses the right words and sentiments, publicly urging the judges to adopt a wiser, evidence-based sentencing policy, those words will turn into pure gold pouring into his departmental coffers.