Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013 Back to the Future in Penal Policy

2013 will probably be remembered as the defining year for the coalition’s penal policy. Kenneth Clarke’s rejection of policies that “endlessly and irresponsibly inflate prison numbers for their own sake” has given way to Chris Grayling’s desire to   “create a fairer criminal justice system where … those who break the law are more likely to go to prison for longer”.  Inside prisons, the laudable ends of the rehabilitation revolution are proving increasingly undeliverable in a climate of severe cuts and harsher regimes. The wholesale reorganisation of community supervision looks overambitious, poorly conceived and overshadowed by a seemingly never-ending string of wrongdoing by the private sector.

In a number of areas of its penal policy, the Coalition government is looking to implement and extend approaches which have been developed and then discarded by the previous Labour administration. Controversial plans to outsource most of probation work were originally proposed back in 2003 and in large part rely on unimplemented provisions of Labour’s Offender Management Act 2007. The recently announced proposal to scrap separate Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) for the 18-21 year old age group and instead to place young adults in the wider prison system, was recommended back in 2007 but the Government then considered the time not right to proceed.   The decision to embark on the construction of a  “super” prison in North Wales for 2,000 prisoners and to consider a similar size establishment on the site of Feltham YOI in West London mark a return to the Titan prison concept also proposed in 2007 but abandoned two years later. All three policies have attracted almost universal condemnation from professional and academic commentators which perhaps makes it all the more striking that each has to a large extent and at different times  been supported by all three main parties.

It’s perhaps most surprising that the Lib Dems, in recent times the most inclined of the three  to champion penal reform , have signed up so willingly to such risky and questionable policies. Perhaps that will change with the arrival of Simon Hughes at the MoJ. Hughes urged Labour ministers back in 2007 to bring prison numbers down and more recently sat on the Joint Human Rights Committee whose report on the Offender Rehabilitation Bill welcomed the opportunity for the fuller consideration of changes to the probation service introduced by Lord Ramsbotham’s amendment.  Hughes’s appointment may be too little too late to hold up the sell- off of probation but he should be able to ask some serious questions about Titan prisons and stop the YOI plans in their tracks.    Whether he is able to influence events will be a test of his party’s resolve in this policy area and an indication of whether a liberal agenda on criminal justice will make it into their 2015 manifesto.

Next year will see all three parties shaping the policies with which they will fight the next election.  It seems likely that the Tories will continue to toughen their approach; a group of up and coming MP’s sees a  need to reverse the tide of soft justice, make prisons  tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places , to ensure that persistent offenders are sentenced for prolonged periods and to privatise all prisons.  

But what about Labour? In the run up to 1997 they developed some big new ideas on crime and disorder, youth justice and drugs.  Serious work went into the development of policy and the infrastructure to deliver it.  I’ll consider what they might focus on this time round in the first blog of 2014.  

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting piece of writing. Thank you, will read it again tomorrow to digest more fully.

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