Thursday, 6 June 2019

Sentencing Blues ?

Justice Secretary David Gauke told MPs this week that he had tried out a GPS electronic tag that had monitored his whereabouts for two days. The question is where he will be after July 22- the date a new Prime Minister will be in place -and more importantly what will become of his plans to reform sentencing.

On the abolition of short prison terms for most offences, Gauke told the Commons “we are working towards having firm proposals by the summer”.  I read that as at best a White Paper. At worst the proposals may not see the light of day.

Why? For one thing, it’s hard to see a traumatised probation  service being able to up its game in time. More importantly, a new Downing Street regime eager to reclaim Conservative supporters from the clutches of Nigel Farage, may be reluctant about -or hostile to - a policy that can be made to look soft on crime.

Conservative Home and Justice Secretaries have embraced a wide spectrum of views over the years- with hardliners like Leon Brittan, Michael Howard, and Chris Grayling, as likely to forge penal policy as the more liberal Douglas Hurd, Michael Gove and now Gauke.

Tory Prime Ministers have varied too in the interest they have shown in criminal justice. Margaret Thatcher surprisingly let Hurd (with his special adviser David Lidington) pursue a moderate Home Office agenda, culminating in a 1991 Criminal Justice Act which aimed to reserve prison for the most serious cases. By contrast, John Major’s desire to condemn a little more and understand a little less gave a green light to  Howard’s baleful notion that Prison Works- though it was actually revisions to the 1991 Act by Ken Clarke- usually thought of as a liberal - which started the punitive counter revolution. Cameron’s attachment to prison reform was as superficial as it was hyperbolic- something that might be said of Gove’s tenure as Justice Secretary  too.   

Of the current leadership contenders, for what it’s worth, I’d place Leadsom, McVey, and Raab -all from the right of the party -in the punishment camp. with former prison ministers Gyimah and Stewart, with Gove in the more rehabilitative tradition. The others are harder to call. Javid looks a far from liberal Home Secretary but has endorsed a public health approach to violence. Hancock, though Health Secretary denounced that approach, seemingly badly briefed. Hunt is socially liberal, though suggesting in 2010 that hooliganism played a role in the Hillsborough disaster raises questions. As immigration minister, Harper piloted the “Go Home or Risk arrest Vans, which he apparently doesn’t regret.

What of the favourite? A recent Telegraph piece by Boris Johnson promised a harder line, on serious offenders than “our cock-eyed crook-coddling criminal justice system” currently provides. Yet as London Mayor, he funded an interesting resettlement programme at Feltham YOI though then proceeded to overclaim its success.

Many factors influence a politician’s stance on crime as on anything else. For good or ill, ideological preferences can be modified by short term political calculation, affordability, technical feasibility even personal experience. I’ve seen it suggested that Tony Blair’s tough approach to crime was at least reinforced when his mother in law was the victim of a mugging.

It’s possible Johnson might allow a modest attempt to reduce short sentences alongside a more restrictive regime on early release for those on longer ones. Offsetting a positive reform with a crackdown elsewhere would be nothing new.

40 years ago, Thatcher’s first Home Secretary William Whitelaw tried to introduce a more generous early release scheme to reduce prison numbers but is mainly remembered for notorious short sharp shock Detention Centres.
Making prisoners serve longer will lead to a potentially large increase in the prison population, even if short sentences fall. This is what seems to be happening in Scotland where despite a presumption against short prison terms, the overall numbers behind bars have gone up. If something similar is the political price to pay for Gauke’s reforms, they could prove something of a pyrrhic victory. Lets hope its not a price that has to be paid.

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