Kenneth Clarke finally unveiled his Green Paper on Sentencing Review and Prison Policy yesterday, later than expected. Tory right wing MPs started moaning immediately, while Clarke’s supporters were cautious in their remarks.
It was made very clear that this is a consultation document and that views and opinions from all sides would be listened to. The Justice Secretary suggested that the result of the consultation would be available after 12 weeks.
Some of the key proposals are :
* Foreign criminals charged with less serious offences will be able to escape a prison sentence in Britain altogether by agreeing to be deported.
* Suspects who plead guilty at the “earliest opportunity” will have their sentence cut by 50 per cent.
* Limiting the number of suspects remanded in prison pending trial.
* A new release test for prisoners who are serving “indeterminate” sentences that will see many freed.
* Treating offenders with mental health issues in the community.
At the same time there will be a big increase in the use of community punishments with private companies brought into run schemes and paid according to how many criminals they stop reoffending.
In some cases criminals could pay to avoid any punishment if they pay a large fine or compensation to victims.
But it is Mr Clarke’s plans to reform of Britain’s murder laws and sentencing for serious offences that is likely to be most controversial.
At present anyone found guilty of murder receives a minimum tariff of 15, 25 or 30 years in jail or in the worst cases a whole-life tariff. The tariff depends on the type of murder, the weapon used and other aggravating factors such as hate crimes.
Mr Clarke said he wanted to return discretion for murder sentences to judges who were well aware of what was and what was not a serious crime.
Mr Clarke said the sentencing rules were “complete nonsense”.
The Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) is to be revised. Clarke pointed out that the controversial measure brought in under the guidance of David Blunkett was intended to be used sparingly. Instead, due to the fact that the Labour administration had laid down inflexible requirements regarding the IPP sentence, judges were using them far more than expected. There are currently nearly 7,000 people serving an IPP with little or no hope of release.
The ridiculous and much criticised sentence involved judges setting a minimum period to be served before the prisoner can apply for parole. In one case, the ‘tarrif’ was only 38 weeks.
Under the new proposals IPP sentences will have a minimum tariff of 10 years.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that Clarke will have problems with the Sun, Daily Mail and other right wing papers, all of whom are critical of the new proposals.
Publicity seeking, new girl Luciana Berger MP was rightly slapped down hard by Clarke yesterday when she tried to bang out the same old New Labour rubbish of the last 13 years.
She does, however illustrate well the difference between the Michael Howard/Blunkett/Blair camp that want to lock up people for as long as possible on the slightest pretext and the Clarke lobby who believe in a ‘what works‘ approach rather than simply satisfying the tabloids and their readers.
It is this difference that is the essence of the Green Paper. The difference between using criminals solely as a means to get more votes as New Labour did and instead, trying to reform and rehabilitate offenders so that they can work, pay their taxes and contribute to the community.
Ken Clarke did demonstrate a defensive posture though when he was attacked over paedophiles. Like everyone else in Parliament, instead of criticising the paranoia that has been driven by MPs and the child protection industry for the last 25 years, he virtually confirmed his agreement with the view that people who commit such crimes are the worst of all offenders. A pity really as he failed to point out that murder is still the most serious offence of all and very few so called paedophiles actually commit murder.
It is understandable perhaps that, as he is bound to be accused of being ‘soft on crime‘ by the Murdoch press, the Probation Service, the Prison Service and almost certainly the Police, the last thing he wants is the over vocal Sarah Payne and her cronies having a go as well.
Clarke intends to introduce a graduated sentencing structure for murder rather than the mandatory minimum sentences brought in by Labour as ‘knee jerk reactions‘ to specific, newsworthy incidents .
This is very sensible. The current minimums of 15, 25 and 30 years laid down allow no discretion for the judge who, unlike the politicians, gets to hear all the evidence and who can therefore take a balanced view of the case rather than playing to the media.
Anyway, there is no reason why someone should get 30 years for killing a policeman or prison warder when the tariff would be 15 years if the victim was ‘only‘ a member of the public who is probably much more important to their family than the local police force or prison staff.
Clarke also intends to introduce a degree of privatisation to the realm of the Probation Service, a move that has got Harry Fletcher of NAPO and probation officers all over the country worried about their jobs; not to mention the fact that the unbridled power they have enjoyed for so long is likely to be diminished under the new proposals.
Which brings us to the mos important point of all that was not mentioned yesterday; a point that most MPs and those in authority don’t want to talk about:
The politicisation of the Criminal Justice System.
If Ken Clarke is to be taken seriously at this late stage of his career, he must stand firm in his belief that real and significant change is necessary in the field of Criminal Justice. He is well aware that sentences in this country are often very much longer than in other EU countries. He is equally aware that for offenders convicted of sexual or violent offences, there is virtually no chance of rehabilitation, due mainly to the entirely ‘risk averse‘ society created by the previous administration and their introduction of never ending supervision, restrictions and conditions for such offenders, all introduced on political grounds in order to satisfy the noisy child protection organisations and groups representing women.
Clarke also knows that it costs a fortune to keep people in prison and that the IPP prisoners, who have often been convicted of the two types of offences mentioned above, cost the most.
Ken Clarke has proposed introducing a new, structured ‘release test‘ to enable the Parole Board to release IPP prisoners if they no longer represent an ongoing threat to the public. It is currently almost impossible for a prisoner, whilst in prison, to prove that his risk has been sufficiently reduced to allow his release.
Probation officers, illiterate prison warders and others who write reports are hopelessly biased in favour of continued custody and there are insufficient rehabilitation courses available to prisoners. Consequently, the Parole Board cannot find the grounds to release someone even if it is believed that they no longer represent a significant threat.
Let us not forget that IPP sentences were introduced by Labour to keep imprisoned for ever those who did not qualify for a life sentence, yet there is no real difference between a life term and an IPP.
TheOpinionSite.org suggests that Clarke takes a much broader view.
Other European countries (as opposed to the United States which the UK slavishly follows) believe that once a prisoner has served his sentence and repaid their debt to society, they should then be free to live their lives normally. In this country, especially for sexual or violent offenders, this is simply not possible.
The Probation Service and those responsible for Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) are frightened to death of making a common sense decision and would rather keep the offender – or more correctly, ex-offender – under the control of the authorities until they die.
For example, they collectively ignore the real research from Oxford University that shows that less than 10% of ‘child sex offenders‘ are likely to re-offend, preferring instead to believe the seriously flawed, American research that suggests – wrongly – that all of them will re-offend.
This gives probation officers every excuse they need to put maximum restrictions on people who actually do not need them.
People may not like ‘paedophiles‘ but there is no point in the State supporting them for the rest of their lives when they could be working and supporting themselves; if the authorities and the Government were to allow them to do so.
A different view is taken of serious violent offenders who, even though they are more likely to re-offend than almost any other group, are not the subject of political and public fear. The answer for them is to get them a job and somewhere to live.
However, with sex offenders, terrorist suspects (even those with no evidence against them) and other, politically and media sensitive offenders, the only objective of the Police and Probation Service is to find a way of putting the individual concerned back into custody, preferably for ever.
This, of course, gets the Probation Service and the Police off the hook and is why Clarke is also advocating a reduction in the number of people recalled to custody whilst on licence.
If Ken Clarke wants to make a real difference therefore, he can start by telling the public the truth about certain categories of prisoner instead of allowing the lies and misinformation from the Probation Service, the Police and the media to continue to be fed to a largely ignorant public who generally have no choice but to swallow the rubbish fed to them by those with vested interests in maintaining a climate of never ending custody and restriction.
The Justice Secretary will be watched very closely from all sides in this contentious debate. Criticism is sure to come his way but TheOpinionSite.org believes that if anyone can make a difference to the appalling criminal justice nightmare that is the British system, it is him.
If he gives way to the media or the right wing MPs, if he fails at this important time, TheOpinionSite.org believes that the UK will continue to be a backward, hated state when it comes to penal policy, prisoners and criminal justice.