In recent weeks, and again this morning, Ken Clarke has come under sustained political pressure over his proposed reforms to the criminal justice system. The Justice Secretary’s pledge to reduce the UK’s record prison population by 3,000 prisoners by 2014-15, engendered by a “rehabilitation revolution” and, most controversially, widespread reform of sentencing guidelines, has been branded as “nothing short of a betrayal” and “a recipe for disaster”. Interestingly, it is not the Opposition benches, nor rebel Liberal Democrats, that have been most vocal in their criticism; it has been the right wing of the Conservative Party. This is not altogether surprising, of course, for a party perennially associated with the “prison works” school of law and order policymaking, especially amidst fraying public opinion on penal reform issues and in regard to a Minister long attacked for his liberal beliefs.
Yet, as a recent Economist article demonstrates, it is conservativism, rather than liberalism, that is fast assuming the vanguard in sentencing and prison reform internationally. Indeed, it is the conservative, Republican-dominated states of Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina that have successfully passed legislation to divert low-risk offenders towards rehabilitative programmes instead of custody, at no expense to political credibility or electoral standing. A recent Republican bill to mandate drug treatment instead of prison for non-violent offenders in Kentucky’s Senate, for example, was passed 38 votes to none.
The key to this nascent reforming zeal among conservatives is the unsustainable cost of incarceration. In an era of unprecedented budgetary constraints, the use of custody is viewed as an unaffordable response to low-risk offenders. However, the move towards community sentencing has delivered improved rehabilitation outcomes in addition to the predicted savings. In Texas, the investment of $240 million in alternatives to custody, in lieu of the $2 billion projected cost of new prison places, has seen recidivism rates fall by 7 per cent, from 31.9 per cent to 24.3 per cent, since 2004. Increasingly, it seems, budgetary impecunity is leading to legislative ingenuity in criminal justice, and with it improved value for money and outcomes for taxpayers.
The success of these initiatives demonstrates two things. Firstly, and most importantly, that precisely because conservatism has a historic reputation as the party of law and order, it has a genuine chance of introducing real criminal justice reform to improve both value for money and results. With the one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world and some of the highest reoffending rates in the OECD, this is long overdue in England and Wales. Secondly, it suggests that opposition to Ken Clarke’s reforms (radio comments aside) have more to do with personal victimisation from a recalcitrant Right than a genuine antagonism to the thrust of the policies. As it struggles to implement reforms to healthcare and policing, the Government must ensure that personality politics does not derail the right reforms in justice as well.
Will Tanner is a political researcher, focusing on criminal justice issues