By Sofie Buckland
Home Secretary John Reid has wasted no time in capitulating to the pressures of the tabloid press.
Less than two months into his post he announced a u-turn on sentencing that will see large increases in prison places at a time when Britain’s prison population is already at a record high of 78,500. Trailed in the Sun as “Blair axes soft sentences” the new measures mean 8,000 extra prison places, adding to the 13 prisons built since New Labour came to power in 1997.
Former Home Secretary David Blunkett had planned to introduce “custody plus”, a scheme under which 60,000 short-sentence prisoners would be given “tough” community sentences instead of jail for some period of their sentence. Aimed at stopping the rise in prison population (predicted to be 100,000 for the first time by 2012), “custody plus” would have involved unpaid work, curfews and supervision orders amongst other sanctions that currently make up the existing Community Punishment Order.
The axing of this scheme is a turn towards a more punitive criminal justice system. Whilst we shouldn’t be under any illusions that an increase in community sentencing was motivated by a recognition that prison doesn’t work, Reid is taking a much harder stance on punishment of offenders than his immediate predecessors.
Encouraged by the tabloids to “get tough”, Reid is reforming community sentencing at the same time as packing jails to the rafters. Proposals to embarrass young offenders by making them wear highly visible uniforms, rubbished in the press when Hazel Blears first announced them, have been put back on the agenda. Reid also wants the army to discipline and supervise young offenders, a proposal condemned by Napo as a move towards more punitive community sentencing.
“Rebalancing” the criminal justice system “in favour of victims” means increasing the bias against those at the bottom of the social heap. Hidden amongst Reid’s reforms are new enforcement measures against those who do not pay fines, courts in town halls and bulk processing of minor crimes such as failure to pay TV licences. “Getting tough” means prosecuting more working-class people in a shorter space of time.
Crackdowns don’t work; they’ve never worked. The US, for example, has the largest prison population in the world, incarcerating 2.1 million people under a hardline three-strikes policy. The US also has three murders every hour, a rape every five minutes and a robbery every 49 seconds.
There are very few people who are a genuine unreformable danger to society and they need to be treated and controlled for the good of the rest of us. This is not the purpose of a justice system that locks up unruly teenagers with career criminals, that splits up families, leaving children in care, and that packs jails full of non-violent offenders.
In 1997, Blair promised to be tough on crime, and tough of the causes of crime. With the relative poverty and social deprivation that breed crime increasing year on year, the second half of the pledge has predictably been ditched in favour of the first.