As the conference season finally comes to an end, what have the various parties said they have in store for the criminal justice and prison system? Most attention has been paid to Tory plans to limit the writ of the ECHR; no votes for prisoners, fewer hurdles to extradition and whole life sentences all feature in their promised land freed from the Human Rights Act and less fettered by Strasbourg judgements . So too do measures to reduce diversion from prosecution and extend honesty in sentencing (which will add at least 1000 to the prison population in the long run).
Chris Grayling’s speech also set out a more nuanced –some might say contradictory- vision for the prison system; cheaper but with more work and education, less like a holiday camp but better able to meet mental health care needs, stricter but with improved resettlement and mentoring. But aside from the not inconsiderable matter of weakening human rights protections for prisoners, there was little new in the conservative platform and no prospect of relief for the ailing prison service or retreat from the sale of probation.
Not surprisingly, Grayling’s somewhat pollyannish view of the state of the prisons was criticised by his Labour shadow Sadiq Khan who cited the Chief Inspector’s picture of a system on the edge of collapse. Labour plan a victims law, the revival of their unimplemented 2001 commitment to extend the role of the Youth Justice Board to 18-21’s, and, it seems, the devolution of youth custody budgets to local authorities to incentivise further falls in its use. But with what looks like a firm pledge to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners, their preferred shape for local arrangements to govern criminal justice remain unclear, as do their intentions in respect of the soon to be privatised probation service.
It was left to two other parties to address the elephants in the penal policy room. As one might have hoped, Simon Hughes pointed out that the key problem is that we lock up too many people in the first place. He identified the need for alternative sanctions for those receiving short sentences, people who have drugs for personal use, the mentally ill who need treatment and for women. A stronger advisory council on drugs and a new women's justice board were promised. Of course the Lib Dems record in the last four years has not achieved much along these lines as part of a government which has, as Grayling boasted, locked up more people, for longer, more cheaply.
More surprising was the contribution of UKIP. They of course would move faster than anyone to get rid of the ECHR altogether and historically have taken a tough line on penal policy. Their 2010 manifesto promised to double prison capacity. Their Justice and Home Affairs lead Diane James told this year’s conference of the need for a full costed analysis of the prison system and, paradoxically, to learn lessons from abroad in reforming it. In their hands such an exercise would almost certainly be a disaster. For abroad they seem to have the USA in mind and their preference might well be for a wholly privatised system. But they do at least acknowledge the problems in prisons and the need for a comprehensive review.