Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Old , New, Borrowed or Blue: What kind of penal policy can we expect from Labour in 2014?

2014, the last year before the general election, will see political parties developing their policies on, amongst many other matters, criminal justice. What will the Labour party come up with? Will they revert to an old Labour position, concerned as in their 1992 manifesto, to improve prison conditions, promote non-custodial sentences for non-violent crimes and take steps to eradicate the discrimination in sentencing policy which particularly affects women and ethnic minority offenders? Or will it be the tough on crime approach adopted by new Labour which saw prison numbers leap from 61,000 when they entered office in 1997 to 85,000 thirteen years later? 

A glance at their 2010 manifesto, drafted by current leader Ed Miliband, shows a compromise between the two approaches .On the one hand there are commitments to expand community payback for criminals who don’t go to prison, to increase alcohol treatment places and introduce a Restorative Justice Act to ensure its availability wherever victims approve it. On the other hand, the manifesto promised to create 94,000 prison places by 2014, a number way in excess of the present prison population.

Denied by the electorate the opportunity to implement these measures, early signs were that as leader of the opposition Miliband wanted to break from the immediate past and support Ken Clarke’s more moderate approach to penal policy. But he could not pass up the opportunity to savage Clarke’s plans for greater sentence discounts for early guilty pleas and since then Labour’s attitude to punishment has been ambivalent.

The party has never accepted, for example, that the indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) was an unjust folly and indeed seem unsure how far they dare stray from the Howard /Straw doctrine favouring the incapacitation of both dangerous and persistent offenders. With Straw standing down as an MP and his successor David Blunkett at least somewhat repentant about his shocking tenure at the Home Office, there is perhaps a chance for Miliband and Sadiq Khan to escape the historic influence of these big beasts and chart their own course on sentencing policy.

As for the Coalitions’ Probation reforms, the current leadership is equally compromised by the past. While The Independent may have reported that Khan would rip up contracts with private companies put before him to sign, he will have little choice but to honour those already in place. Straw had to do so in respect of private prisons despite his description of them, when in opposition, as morally repugnant. Khan, by contrast, is on record as basing his policy   on what works, rather than dogma, and claiming that the nine new private sector prisons provided by the Labour government have played a successful role in the prison system.  Even the spectacular failures of G4S and Serco seem unlikely to shift Labour’s fundamentally blue approach to private providers.

There are however three big ideas that Labour would do well to borrow as they put their manifesto plans together. The first would be to apply more thoroughly models of Justice Reinvestment which would see responsibility for the costs of imprisonment move from Whitehall to the local agencies which produce the supply of prisoners. Creating incentives for local partnerships to invest in prevention and reintegration would shift the centre of gravity away from unproductive use of prison towards more effective community based measures.

The second might see the largely successful work of the Youth Justice Board, created by new labour in 1998, extended to the next age group up- 18-21 year olds.

The third would adopt a similar approach to women; a separate Women’s Justice Board needs to be established to drive the hitherto piecemeal and uncoordinated efforts to establish an appropriate system for women in conflict with the law.

In the run up to the 1997 election a considerable amount of policy development was undertaken by Labour on criminal justice- largely on youth justice but also on community safety and prisons. What emerged may not have been universally welcomed, but the result was a relatively clear idea not only of what needed to be done but how. A similar project is surely required in 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Some smart ideas - incentives to invest in prevention and extend youth justice board. Chance for Labour to invest in smarter crime control by focusing on what has been proven to reduce violent victimization and stop wasting taxes on prisons. See new guide for politicians on smarter crime control http://irvinwaller.org/