The first thing to say about Ken Clarke is that he is clearly not one to get hung-up about opinion polls. Populism dictates that politicians taking power denounce the feeble, wooly attempts of their predecessors on crime before promising more prisons, tougher sentencing and the return of the cane for feral youths (ok, so I made that last one up). Ken comes to power and announces just the opposite.
In what has to be one of the most liberal speeches of the new coalition the Justice Secretary will today declare that ‘many a man has entered prison without with a drug problem and left it drug dependent’ and that short-term sentencing risks making ‘petty criminals into serious ones’.
The admission that short-term sentencing doesn’t work is key, all too often petty crimes are dealt with by locking away troubled people for anywhere between 3-12months. In this time they lose their job, their home and often suffer from relationship breakdown, not to mention the psychological pressure a prison regime puts them under. They will also mix with more hardened criminals, substituting benign friendships on the outside for more malignant ones inside. Lastly, the short nature of the sentence means there is not enough time to offer any significant rehabilitation or training. All this adds up to the highest per Capita prison population in Europe and one of the highest reoffending rates. If we keep going as we are we will have over 100,000 people languishing in jail by the turn of the decade.
So, Ken will today outline ambitious plans to ban any sentence under 3months and put pressure on the judiciary to dramatically reduce the number of sentences under a year. Instead he will promote the use of more community orders, more drug rehabilitation centres and closer ties with the third sector, who are continuously delivering creative and effective solutions to reoffending.
Critics from the right may argue this is just another example of us going soft on crime, whilst those on the left will suggest he is being forced into it because of Osbourne’s budget. I have a little more faith in the old boy, I get the feeling prison numbers and how we deal with them has been nagging at him sine he was Home Secretary in the mid-nineties and now, finally he is back in a position to do something about it. For me it is one of the single most important speeches since the coalition was formed. At last, a Tory I could grow to like.