Prison sentencing reform under attack from Tory right and tabloids

By staff writers
8 Jun 2011

Sentencing reforms and other "sensible" changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice are under threat as Prime Minister David Cameron and his advisers look set to bow to pressure from the right-wing of the Conservative Party and tabloid scaremongering.

Plans to introduce a 50 per cent sentencing discount for an early guilty plea have already been ditched.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has also undermined progressive elements of his overall package with crass comments on rape, and with additional privatisation plans which have been denounced both by penal reformers and trade unions.

But there is now real concern among those who want to see a reduction in prison numbers, community sentencing, restorative justice and a radical shift away from incarceration-based policies, that the possibilities of moving in this direction are being undermined.

The Clarke sentencing package as a whole would save £130 million for the government by reducing demand for prison places.

Work on establishing the impact of excluding more serious offences, including rape and attempted murder from the discount plans, is ongoing.

The discount plan is a major part of Mr Clarke's drive at least to stabilise the record 85,000 prison population in England and Wales.

In 1976, then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said that if the figure went over 42,000 it would be a "crisis".

Justice Ministry estimates indicate that 3,400 of the 6,000 fewer prison places that will be needed as a result of the new sentencing package are due to come from the plan to increase the maximum available sentence discount from 33 per cent to 50 per cent.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, told the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme on 8 June 2011 that Mr Clarke's plans present a "coherent blueprint for reform" and should be allowed to go ahead.

"I think the reforms package is very coherent and sensible," she said. "So let's hope that they just proceed as planned with just a minor hiccup on the way."

Ms Lyon continued: "Obviously the Prime Minister must be having to deal with a rather toxic mix of press and a few backbenchers but, in general, these reforms have been well-received right across the piece, unusually so."

"They have a lot of public support, as far as we can see. And some of the things are really essential – a sweep-up of a really appalling mess," she said.

In April 2011, Ms Lyon criticised Mr Clarke's prison privatisation plans. She wrote in the Guardian newspaper: "By unleashing the forces of competition, the government hopes to bring about a more efficient and effective justice. Good relations between prisoners and staff, staff and managers are critical to the health of any prison system. It would be a poor outcome if tensions led to a breakdown in these relations and a deterioration in conditions."

"Since the first private jail was ushered in, in 1992 by Ken Clarke, then as Home Secretary, the results have been mixed – some private prisons have proved innovative and successful while others have been criticised for their high staff turnover, tendency to cut corners and weaknesses in security," she added.

But on sentencing reform the Prison Reform Trust and the Ministry of Justice largely see eye-to-eye.

* More on the Prison Reform Trust: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

[Ekk/3]

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