The government’s long awaited sentencing reforms are in chaos. David Cameron and Ken Clarke are engaged in bitter warfare over the contents of proposed sentencing reforms and the best way to present them.
Clark wants justice and modernisation whereas Cameron wants political security and doesn’t care whether the reforms are fair or not.
In fact, TheOpinionSite.org can report that things are so bad between the two men that a major speech on prison policy from Mr. Cameron which was due to be given today has now been postponed until next week at the earliest.
Cameron is frightened to death of the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers and Clarke is becoming more and more frustrated as he seeks to re-balance sentencing whilst being under specific instructions from the Treasury to save at least £130 million and preferably more if he can.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet has finally woken up to the fact that in order to save the vast amounts of money that are necessary, it may also be required that some serious violent and sex offenders benefit from the proposed 50% reduction in sentence on offer in return for an early guilty plea.
To right wing Tories and to the tabloid press, such proposals are anathema. They simply cannot bear the thought that they may no longer be able to lock up as many people as possible for ever increasing amounts of time
The massive and expensive increase in custody that resulted from Tony Blair’s administration has got to be reversed. This is a fact that is politically difficult for some to accept but is defiantly staring them in the face and desperately crying out to be implemented. To do otherwise would mean an ever increasing number of prisoners sentenced to ever longer periods of custody which of course, means an ever greater expense to the taxpayer.
Recent statistics revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information request show that the number of offenders recall to prison last on licence increased by more than 400% between 2001 and 2009.
Sources in the Ministry of Justice say that the number has increased even more in the last 12 months but official figures, conveniently, are not available.
Tony Blair is remembered for standing up in the House of Commons and stating that he was proud that so many offenders were being recalled to prison.
The official explanation for this huge increase in recall was given by Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation union NAPO when he said, “The number of prisoners recalled to custody has gone up by over 450% since 2001. Thousands of those who have been released clearly pose a risk to the public. It is not surprising therefore that the recall rate has increased so dramatically.”
What Mr. Fletcher actually means – and is afraid to say – is that probation officers, many of whom have had no experience of life and have come straight from university into the probation service are so frightened of criticism and the threat of being replaced by private organisations that they play it safe. They now recall many more people to prison than previously rather than spend time, money and trouble in properly rehabilitating those who have been released from custody.
If it were not for the shortage of money, there is little doubt that even more people would be recalled to prison, often without committing any offence or even breaking their licence conditions but simply because a probation officer “feels” that it is necessary.
If prisoners are released at the half way point licences will be much longer than at present. In order to save money and resources it is highly likely that both the Probation Service and the Police will want to find some excuse to put offenders back inside at the earliest opportunity rather than help them to reintegrate into the community as they should.
There is also the risk of ‘sentence inflation’ where longer sentences are given because the judge knows that only half of it will be served behind bars.
On the political front, with Cameron terrified of the tabloids and Ken Clarke so annoyed at not being allowed to do what he knows is right, whatever proposals are instigated in the forthcoming reforms of sentencing, for many people it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Indeed, TheOpinionSite.org confidently predicts that some right wing MPs together with some newspaper editors may even choke on what finally emanates from the increasingly bitter discussions that are currently in progress.
The likes of right-wing Tory MP Philip Davies are likely to be apoplectic at the final result. The Daily Mail and the Sun will accuse everyone in the government of going soft on crime, claiming that vicious thugs and despicable paedophiles are all being released having served only half of their sentence, all of which will be complete and utter nonsense as in reality sex offenders are likely to be the last people allowed out of the prison gate, even if some have already proved that due to risk reduction, they should be the first.
One of the subjects that has caused most difficulty – and the most expense – is IPP sentences, Indeterminate Sentences ‘ for public protection’ that are in all but name a life sentence and which have increased dramatically in number since being introduced by Tony Blair’s government in 2003.
Nobody wants to talk about IPP sentences because in reality, the only way to really solve the problems and expense that they cause is to scrap the sentence altogether and no MP and certainly no Cabinet minister wishes to suggest such a thing.
The current proposal on the table is that IPP sentences should be limited to defendants who might otherwise get a 10 year determinate sentence or where the recommended tariff, the minimum period to be served before the prisoner is able to apply for parole, is five years or more.
Whilst this is a very sensible suggestion, certainly in respect of saving money, it is also the kind of proposal that results in ministers committing political suicide. Although it is Parliament led by the government that makes our laws, it seems that in this day and age Rupert Murdoch and the editors of the Sun and Daily Mail must also agree before such legislation is adopted.
Nevertheless, the IPP sentence problem has to be sorted out sooner or later, whether ministers like it or not. The longer the argument goes on, the more it costs the country. These costs are very significant too, often running into millions of pounds per prisoner dependent on how long the prisoner is held in custody.
Mr. Cameron is anxious to re-establish the Conservative party as ‘the party of law and order’. He is not remotely interested in establishing the Conservative party as the party of justice and fairness. On the contrary; he does not care how unjust or how unfair this penal policy may be in reality as long as it secures his position in Downing Street. Nor does he care how many ministers together with their reputations are destroyed in the process.
A major problem for Mr. Cameron is that Ken Clarke, unlike other ministers, has already held every major post in a British government that it is possible to hold other than that of Prime Minister. Clarke really is a “big beast” and is not likely to be intimidated by anyone, let alone a smarmy, sleazy character like David Cameron.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that Mr. Clarke will ultimately get his own way and many thousands of prisoners will be released having served only half of their sentence in return for pleading guilty at the earliest possible opportunity. We also believe that the variety of prisoners may be much greater than has been put forward previously. It is highly likely that those prisoners released early will include violent offenders and some sex offenders, even those who have committed serious offences against children and almost certainly those who have been convicted of downloading child pornography.
The only prisoners who will not be included are rapists, a direct result of Cameron crumbling under the weight of tabloid pressure.
If that sounds as if we are sticking up for rapists we are not. It is simply that as soon as distinctions are allowed between certain types of offenders, the whole principal of discounts for early guilty pleas is meaningless. It is in reality the victims of rape who will benefit most from the reforms as they will not have to give evidence in a trial.
Whilst to the uninitiated and possibly the unintelligent (especially some MPs) this may seem to be an absurd situation, the truth is that many of the sentences now being handed out should not have been given in the first place. In the case of IPP sentences for example, judges actually have very little discretion as to whether such a sentence should be handed down or not, even if they feel that such a sentence is not appropriate. David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary who served under Tony Blair and who introduced IPP sentences made sure that judges had little – and in some cases – no discretion.
We therefore await with interest the announcements from Mr. Cameron and from Mr. Clarke next week. Whatever either of them say, further changes to the proposals are still likely as in order to enact the changes, legislation will have to be passed by Parliament.
Frankly, it is hard to see how right wing Tories would enable such legislation to progress easily given that their sole interest in life seems to be making life as miserable as possible for everyone other than themselves and locking up as many people as possible for ever.
It is a great pity that members of Parliament cannot distinguish between the Law and Justice. They seem to be incapable of understanding the difference between the two concepts and instead of concentrating on matters that affect real people in the real world, they prefer to expend their energy in a fruitless and pointless attack on political targets such as the EU and the European Convention of Human Rights, without which we would by now be living in a British police state.
TheOpinionSite.org is often tempted to rejoice whenever a politician is arrested and charged with a criminal offence. If nothing else, it brings them into a reality from which they are otherwise estranged and isolated.
If MPs fail to support the reforms that are being put forward by Ken Clarke they will be guilty of betraying justice, fairness and the millions of people affected by the current out of date, unfair and unjust sentencing policy that exists in an ever more pathetic and vindictive ‘little Britain’ today.