The Con-Dem coalition's Justice secretary Ken Clarke has abandoned the traditional Conservative view that prison works in favour of adopting more community sentencing. Now, whilst it might not function effectively as a means of rehabilitation the one thing that it does ensure is that dangerous people are taken off the streets and away from the communities that they terrorise. Ken Clarke, of course, will not live in a neighbourhood blighted by crime and anti-social behaviour, so if his policy fails it will be a theoretical blunder for him, but a daily nightmare for the victims of crime who tend to live in working or middle class areas.
His emphasis on finding ways to rehabilitate offenders and reduce recidivism is to be welcomed, but it does not neccesarily follow through that the best way to do this is through non-custodial sentences. In fact, research from the Ministry of Justice shows that neither existing community sanctions or custodial sentences have much effect on persistent reoffenders. However, at least with a spell in prison there is one less criminal on the streets for a given time.
Many prisoners and ex-offenders say that they dont find prison that tough. I would argue, and it would be interesting to see what a criminologist thought,that this is a factor in the high rates of recidivism. Whilst I am not advocating a return to cruel, primitive, or inhumane prison conditions, at the same time it should not be viewed as an easy ride and particularly so for those whose crimes are of a violent or menacing nature. Whilst I would welcome any approach and support that will prevent young people from entering the revolving door of the penal system and rehabilitate offenders I believe that we need to have a harsh deterrent for violent crimes. Any effective justice system should firstly be concerned with protecting the innocent and vulnerable.
Then and only then can we can get around to talking about rehabilitation.
For those of you interested I have written a piece for the New Statesman out on Monday, 24th January on how the wrong kind of cuts and changes to the criminal justice system will affect vulnerable and innocent residents in Supported Housing projects.