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The days of Conservatives wanting to lock fewer people up are over

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Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland wants to see more people in prison, says CJ McKinney

Five years ago, Michael Gove told a stunned audience at the Howard League for Penal Reform that he wanted to reduce the number of people in prison.

“Obviously”, the Justice Secretary said, “I’d like to see the prison population fall over time”.

I still remember the intake of breath around the room. The sentiment was far from obvious. Criminal justice campaigners couldn’t remember the last time a Conservative Justice Secretary had expressed an ambition to lock fewer people up, rather than more.

At the time, England and Wales had more prisoners per head of population than any Western European country. The rise in the number of jailbirds looked unstoppable: between 1990 and 2015, the prison population increased by 90% to reach 86,000.

Since Gove gave that speech, the numbers have levelled off. If none of the rotating case of Justice Secretaries that succeeded him have delivered on his “new era” of criminal justice, at least none of them had much interest in making sentences any tougher.

That’s changed. One of the most potent ingredients of the Johnson government’s recipe for electoral success, along with ending austerity and getting Brexit done, was a hard line on law and order.

No sooner had Robert Buckland become Justice Secretary than he was abandoning plans to scrap short prison sentences. Today he’s launched changes to criminal sentencing that will, among other things, end early release on licence at the halfway point for certain violent and sexual offenders. Those sentenced to between four and seven years for, say, grievous bodily harm with intent will now serve two thirds of that behind bars.

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Yes, there are other measures designed to keep lower-risk offenders out of prison, such as setting up “problem-solving courts” to offer addicts treatment instead of jail time. As Joshua Rozenberg points out, the package is more “balanced” than the government’s tub-thumping rhetoric would have led us to think.

But Frances Crook from the Howard League reckons the reforms will still end up “pushing more men into prisons for longer”.

That’s confirmed in the small print. The Ministry of Justice impact assessment predicts that, overall, the prison population will rise as a result of these changes.

So it’s no surprise that when Buckland was asked this morning whether he’d like prison numbers to fall, he refused to do a Gove on it. “I don’t think looking at it from a raw numbers point of view is actually helpful on any level”, Buckland said.

Thanks to coronavirus restrictions, the number of prisoners has fallen sharply in the last few months. That should give an overcrowded penal system some temporary relief. But it looks like the only way is up from here.

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15 Comments

Engerlish

Good. Leftists have done this country so much harm by caring too much about criminals and not enough about good law abiding people. Lock more of them up for longer, I say.

Why are Tories so boring?

It’s so easy to be right wing these days. No need for new ideas: just bang on about emotive topics with some predictable “solutions” and watch the suckers fall for it. Pathetic!

tired

literally…and in opposition to the studies and evidence that they have access to.

Anonymous

You just need to look at the crime stats in New York and California since they stopped putting people in prison/ even sending out the police to answer calls during coronavirus. Obviously people committed more crimes.

This touchy-feely left wing attitude that locking people up is evil is at best naive and at worst stupid. Never mind the fact that the only people who call for these reforms are people who don’t experience crime due to their privileged positions.

The simple fact is that actions have consequences and if you remove the consequences then there is no counterbalance to stop the negative actions.

This naive view that all criminals are actually victims is inherently dangerous as it neglects the quite obvious fact that some people are bad.

Anon

Exactly, especially young men. They should have longer sentences, being the greater risks, not given hugs from apologist lefties.

Frother

They should hang them up and throw away the key! The only language they understand is too good for them! Bring back the birch and pilliwinks! AND I’D PULL THE LEVER MYSELF!

Spacial awareness

Well too bad we’re running out of space in our prisons.

Anon

We should use Scottish islands, or maybe all of Wales. Then they would be good for something.

dragon

England brought us Brexit, I assure you the feeling is mutual.

Yaki

Surrender monkey says what?

Smokes & Mirrors

In the words of the Secret Barrister…

There has never been as good a time to be a criminal as under Boris Johnson’s government.

Boris Johnson has refused point blank to resource the courts. His government has cut court capacity, causing a backlog of over half a million cases.

When Covid hit and made things even worse, Boris Johnson still refused to make money available to assist the courts.

There is now typically a delay of 2 to 3 years between a crime being reported and a case coming to trial. In that time, witnesses’ memories fade. Many lose faith and disappear. So cases collapse.

If I were a guilty criminal, I would raise a toast to Boris Johnson every day.

“Tougher sentencing” is snake oil. It means nothing when it is taking years to bring people to trial; when the government’s conscious policy is to force witnesses and victims of crime to wait years for a trial, rather than spend a relatively tiny amount on resourcing the courts.

Heard that before

*Yawn*. Nothing new here really. Conservatives have been boasting about being tough on crime for god knows how long. They rarely do much about it though. Massive sentencing reform is rare. Most Justice Secretary’s content themselves with making tweaks. This is barely news. I bet that all that will really happen is that certain types of criminals will spend a few extra years in prison and early releases will drop but not remarkably so. Not exactly earthshaking reforms.

Anonymous

All offences of violence and dishonesty should carry a 6 month minimum.

Anonymous

Shoplifting pick n mix would be a dishonesty offence. Should people get six months for that?

Anon

The link between poverty and crime has been proven time and again.

Yet we’re still in a disgraceful position where many poor people aren’t in prison.

The poor generally pose a significant, material risk to the personal and property rights of citizens and a proper government would grow the balls to imprison them all for the good of society as a whole.

The bar of poverty could be set low, perhaps £20k a year of income, but it needs doing and needs doing quickly.

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