Could the Tories' decade in power really be defined by prison reform?

In his own party conference speech, Michael Gove talked about prisoners not for ever being defined by their mistakes – brave words before a Tory audience

Ian Birrell@ianbirrell
Sunday 11 October 2015 18:53
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Turning prisons such as Aylesbury, pictured, into productive and humane institutions presents Michael Gove with a momentous challenge
Turning prisons such as Aylesbury, pictured, into productive and humane institutions presents Michael Gove with a momentous challenge

Shortly after the Conservatives won their unexpected victory in the general election, I asked a Downing Street aide what he thought would be the key legacy of the Government. His two-word answer surprised me: “Prison reform.” The source added that both the Prime Minister and his new Justice Secretary were determined to sort out a flawed system that locked up so many people and yet failed to stop them reoffending.

Now David Cameron has placed this cause at the centre of his agenda, with a passionate section of his party conference speech lamenting a prison system that is clearly not working. Cynics might see this as a steak of liberalism designed to capture the centre-ground as Labour lurches far to the left. Yet few can disagree with his assertion that prison is not working when half of criminals reoffend within a year of release. Or when the Prime Minister pointed out core problems that lead people into crime, such as abuse, addiction and mental health concerns, go unchallenged while inmates are in costly state care.

What a welcome contrast this makes to the usual tired and blinkered language of the right on crime and punishment. It was, after all, Mr Cameron’s mentor and predecessor Michael Howard, who insisted that prison works despite so much evidence to the contrary. Then there was Edwina Currie waving handcuffs at an earlier Tory party conference, demanding a crackdown on prisoners. Or Sir John Major, a man who should have known better, saying: “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” Not that Labour has been much better, terrified of seeming soft.

Yet prison reform is a conservative cause, as the right in America has discovered in moves that detoxified the criminal justice debate so dramatically. After all, those on the libertarian right are usually sceptical about the state, while fiscal conservatives should be wary about £2bn annual public spending on such a flawed system. Social conservatives talk about the centrality of the family, yet prison disrupts families with devastating consequences. Then there is the religious right, which professes faith in redemption.

I have just filmed a Panorama programme for the BBC that examines how ultra-conservative Republicans in Texas – traditionally home to the toughest penal policies in the democratic world – have shifted away from locking people up towards investing in rehabilitation and evidence-based probation. The state’s huge incarceration rate has dropped significantly, while it has closed nine of its 14 young offender units. It is moving money into curbing problems of addiction, broken families and post-traumatic stress that drive so much crime. One result is that property offences are falling much faster in Texas than the national average.

Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, joined me for a few days. He was impressed by courts that specialise in specific issues such as drugs or domestic violence, offering a holistic approach to curbing criminality. One judge in a Dallas court dealing with people whose lives were wrecked by crack cocaine and crystal meth compared it with parenting: setting boundaries and offering positive support to criminals traditionally seen as menaces to society. It is tough love, backed by long sentences for failure. We even met hardened gangsters among the reformed crooks rehabilitated into society.

In his own party conference speech, Gove talked about prisoners not for ever being defined by their mistakes – brave words before a Tory audience. Now he plans to roll out specialist courts in Britain, offering a third way between prison and the community sentences so distrusted by voters. I sense that after his combative approach to education, he wants to work with the cautious judiciary and bruised probation services to achieve reform. And like the politicians in Texas, Gove will start with low-level offences so as not to alarm the public that serious criminals are avoiding jail.

It would be good to hope that such sensible moves are accompanied by an end to the mania for making new laws that helps to choke the prison system (along with the sex offenders who now make up one in eight inmates). England and Wales lock up more people than any other nation in Western Europe. Yet, with luck, this is the moment when austerity and falling crime provide political cover for a long-overdue jolt to the criminal justice debate, tilting the balance away from the self-harming stance of “prison works” towards innovative efforts to reform the destructive behaviour behind so much crime.

This is what happened in Texas eight years ago, then spread across America – including ultra-Republican states such as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. It also happened in the Netherlands, which used to match our imprisonment rates but then realised that putting fewer people in jail meant more money freed up for effective community-based punishments.

As the Republican behind the Texan reforms told me, society should differentiate between criminals who are inherently bad and those that we are mad at for their disruptive activities – then work out how to reform the latter.

This is not being soft on crime. The easy option is to chuck crooks in jail so that they can lie around watching television and exchanging tactics rather than forcing them to confront their alcoholism, drug addiction, abusive behaviour or poor eduction. It is about being smart on crime. And for the Conservatives, it is about getting it right on crime at last.

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