Monday, 6 December 2010

Ken Clarke's conundrum

Tomorrow Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will publish his Green Paper, the one which has caused all the fuss about shorter prison sentences.

Clarke’s message up to now has been;

a) that short prison sentences don’t stop re-offending,
b) that keeping people in prisons ‘unnecessarily’ is too costly for the taxpayer and
c) that given the parlous state of the public finances we need to do things that cost less.

Clarke has indicated that a way round the problem is to give beefed-up community sentences, instead of costly incarceration, to criminals committing lesser offences.

The idea works in the political sense because those on the Labour side identify with the idea that community sentences are more rehabilitative – Ed Miliband suggested he supported Clarke’s reforms during his speech at conference.

Meanwhile many Tories are prepared to suppress their instinct to rubbish the claim that Clarke’s ideas will reduce offending, as they accept the need to cut spending quickly and deeply.

But Clarke’s idea only continues to work politically as long as it continues to tread that path, and one senior member of the Coalition told me that the Ministry of Justice had faced some difficult challenges with it.

The crux of the problem was apparently that the kind of ‘beefed up’ community sentences that would be needed to make the idea viable for many Tory MPs, may end up being very expensive too.

“The question they’re asking is how do you make community sentences tougher and the answer is you need constant supervision – you need to get people out of bed, you need to get them to the workshop, you need to get them to the drug rehabilitation place, you need to watch and monitor them constantly," said my source.

“That is very expensive, particularly as these people live very chaotic lives. It may not be cheaper to do it that way and that is something they will have to justify.”

If it turns out that community sentences do not make significant enough savings, then those Tories sitting on their hands may begin to ask why they should support something that feels soft on crime, when it isn’t even cutting spending that much.

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