Will liberal prison reforms work?

In a surprising break with David Cameron's 'prison works' mantra, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke,wants to reduce the number of people in British prisons in favour of more community-based sentences. His hope is that it will cut crime and cut costs. But is he right? Simon Wilson investigates.

Ken Clarke's decision to cut the number of people in British prisons will spark a 'rehabilitation revolution', affecting prisons and crime rates across the country. Simon Wilson investigates.

What has Ken Clarke proposed?

In a major policy speech he made last week, the justice secretary set a clear new direction for future government policy and sparked a storm of media debate. In essence, Clarke said prison policy in England and Wales has been wrong. "Banging up more and more people for longer" doesn't work and it's time to cut the number of people in our prisons and launch a "rehabilitation revolution". That would cut costs (it costs an average of £38,000 to house a prisoner) and reoffending rates. It's a surprising break with David Cameron's campaign defence of short sentences and the 'prison works' mantra and it was greeted by supporters and critics alike as paving the way for more community-based sentences.

Are we imprisoning more people?

Yes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prison population in England and Wales was fairly stable, at between around 42,000 and 50,000. From the late 1980s until 1993 when it stood at nearly 45,000 it was on a gentle downward trend, under Ken Clarke as home secretary. Clarke's speech was thus an implicit attack on his Tory successor in the job, Michael Howard, who made a notorious 'prison works' speech at the Tory conference in 1993. That kick-started a long-run increase in the prison population to its current record high of 85,000 described by Clarke as "an astonishing number, which I would have dismissed as an impossible and ridiculous prediction if it had been put to me in a forecast in 1992".

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What happened under Labour?

Clarke's speech was also an attack on Labour home secretaries, such as David Blunkett and John Reid, who (Clarke claims) drew up their profligate, populist prison policies with "a cheque book in one hand and a copy of the Daily Mail in the other". During Labour's first term, the prison population in fact remained fairly stable at around the 65,000 mark. But from 2001 onwards it started to surge again to today's new peak. The long-run rise means that we now imprison far more people than comparable countries: 154 people per 100,000 in England and Wales (and 152 in Scotland), compared to 111 in Italy, 96 in France, 87 in Germany and 71 in Norway. We have some way to go to catch the league-topping USA, with 753.

Has crime gone up?

Government statisticians insist that crime has fallen dramatically since 1995. That's whether measured by the British Crime Survey (their preferred measure) or by the number of offences recorded by the police. So there are more people in prison mainly because courts are handing down longer sentences to more criminals. Under Labour, recommended sentences rose for dozens of offences, from carrying a knife to drug trafficking. And the new sentence of indefinite imprisonment for public protection (which critics argue makes it all but impossible for long-term prisoners to prove they no longer pose a danger) has been used far more than its creators envisaged.

Does less crime mean prison works?

That is the view of Clarke's many critics in his own party, as well as Labour opponents such as Jack Straw, who stoutly defended his own record and that of Michael Howard in a piece for the Daily Mail last week. Their argument is simple: if criminals are in prison, they can't commit offences. And since the average offender commits about 140 offences a year (according to a 2001 Home Office report), an extra 40,000 prisoners stops millions of crimes being committed and saves lots of money. The trouble is that reoffending rates are on the rise (up 8% between 2006 and 2008 ) and more people reoffend after prison than after non-custodial sentences. Plus there is plenty of international evidence that falling crime figures can also accompany a more Clarke-style approach.

What kind of evidence?

Consider the example of Canada the oft-cited model for the deficit-slashing austerity measures that have forced Clarke's hand (or given him an opportunity to pursue a more liberal agenda, according to your viewpoint). As part of the Canadian government's programme of 20% cuts in the early 1990s, the prison population was shrunk by 11%. Low-risk inmates were given early release and the justice system moved towards more community-based sentences. Assaults and robberies fell 23% over the decade and homicides were down 43%. Finland, too, tried a major policy switch from high levels of incarceration (three times the rate of its Nordic neighbours in the late 1970s) to relatively low ones (60 per 100,000 now) with no rise in the crime rate. Ken Clarke is betting that the same can happen here. And he may well have an unlikely well-wisher in the form of the hardline Republican governor of South Carolina. The cash-strapped US state, not noted for its liberal instincts, passed a remarkably similar set of prison reforms just last month.

Will Clarke's ideas save money?

Assuming Ken Clarke gets his way, how will the Ministry of Justice know that it is succeeding in cutting costs? A worrying National Audit Office (NAO) report this week found that the Justice Ministry's financial management is less than impressive. "The Ministry does not understand the costs of its activities within prisons, the probation service, and the courts in sufficient detail," says the NAO. "This reduces the Ministry's ability to allocate resources on the basis of relative financial and operational performance of individual prisons, probation services and courts." Sorting this out should be top of Ken's to-do list if he wants to silence his policy critics.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.