Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Twenty Year Stretch: Michael Howard and the Legacy of Punishment

Twenty years ago this month, Michael Howard became Home Secretary , bringing a sea change to penal policy in England and Wales with which we have been living ever since.   Overturning a consensus that Home Office policies could do little to reduce crime, he embarked on an ambitious programme designed to increase arrests, prosecutions, and convictions but it is his view that “prison works” and the impact of his policies on the numbers behind bars for which he will be most remembered.

 Howard latched on to two influential conclusions from an academic review prepared for the US Congress about what works in crime prevention. The first was that incapacitation policies prevent crime because people in prison simply do not have the opportunity to commit offences and second that there are a small number of offenders who commit a large number of crimes. “If they could be incapacitated “, the review said “a large number of crimes would be prevented.” Despite caveats in the report, falls in the crime rate in the US   together with political saleability made the policy irresistible to Howard, who was by instinct sympathetic to victims and hostile to offenders.

Howard’s 27 point law and order package  delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1993 included new Secure Training Centres for children as young as 12 and  mandatory minimum sentences for repeat  burglars and drug dealers to be served in decent but austere prisons.  Later policies to abolish parole and severely limit early release were never implemented but during his four year tenure prison numbers rose from 44,500 to 61,000.

Howard’s legacy was longer lasting however. By provoking political adversaries to oppose his reforms, he pushed his shadow Tony Blair and New Labour as a whole into a repressive approach to penal policy.  Prison numbers have continued to rise ever since 1993.

More disturbing perhaps was Howard’s  shamelessly  populist approach to law and order- most notoriously in his attempts to increase the tariff for the juvenile  killers of James Bulger, later  described by  a senior judge  as “ institutionalised vengeance ... [by] a politician playing to the gallery”.  In respect of his sentencing policy the Lord Chief Justice told the House of Lords that “Never in the history of our criminal law have such far reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence.” Indeed the most recent review of evidence by the Ministry of Justice has found that  “to date there has been no clear consensus from criminologists and commentators about whether there is an incapacitation effect at all, and if so, its scale.”

Howard’s treatment of the probation service was equally cavalier, removing the requirement for university based social work training and threatening the very existence of the service.
  When he left office recruitment had almost dried up and it was left to Jack Straw to introduce a new scheme of professional training as an urgent priority.

Twenty years on , the liberal Ken Clarke has again been succeeded by a hardliner promising spartan abut humane prisons and threatening the probation service. Rehabilitation now plays a more significant role among policy objectives but Howard’s approach can be seen among a new generation of Tory politicians who want “ to reverse the tide of soft justice”. A group of them have written
  “After the Coalition - A Conservative Agenda for Britain” in which they call for persistent offenders to be sentenced for prolonged periods in  tough unpleasant and uncomfortable prisons all to be run by the private sector.   With problems on Europe and the economy to contend with , such a back to basics approach may prove attractive  to the Tory Party at least in the run up to the next election.