The ‘Virtual Prison’ Trumps The Rehabilitation Revolution

25 Feb
David Cameron aims to make non-custodial  community sentences tougher. Downing Street, not the Ministry of Justice, is understood  to be the driving force propelling the proposed changes.

Changes are in the pipeline for community sentences. Downing Street’s support of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution has been so lukewarm that it has found it itself in the position of having to deny reports that the Ministry of Justice is about to be axed.

This reflects attitudes which are widely held within some sections of the government. Last year the  Policy Exchange  (Cameron’s favourite think tank, according to the New Statesman) published ‘Fitting The Crime’, a report which asserted that public confidence in community sentences is low. Louise Casey noted in her foreword to the report:

“We need to change who will be in charge of overseeing these sentences, removing it from the Probation Service, some of whom see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word.”

This perception that the community justice system is insufficiently punitive is echoed by the influential ConservativeHome blog, which quotes Rachel  Sylvester’s report:

“At one meeting, called to discuss improving non-custodial sentences, Downing Street strategists were horrified to see the civil servants from the Ministry of Justice wincing whenever the words ‘punishment’ or ‘retribution’ were used. Every time one of the department’s officials talked about ‘managing offenders’, someone from No 10 mentioned ‘punishing criminals’ just to make a point”.

According to the Evening Standard, Cameron is now “very clear” that he wants community sentences to be “tougher and command public confidence“.

The growing perception that the Conservative/LibDem coalition lack a coherent overall crime strategy appears to have been influential  in influencing Number Ten to propose changes in community sentencing to the Ministry of Justice. Like one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, Cameron may have concluded that being seen to be tough on crime has no electoral downside.

The media is awash with references to the imminent construction of what has been labelled a “virtual prison”. Offenders would be electronically tagged to guarantee their compliance with curfews for 16 hours a day. Breaching the curfew would mean a return to court, then to prison. Plans to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, driving licences and passports have also been mooted.

These developments appear to reinforce the suggestion that it is David Cameron rather Ken Clarke in the driving seat. The virtual prison, it appears, trumps the rehabilitation revolution.

Though the plans have yet to published and have not been definitively confirmed, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman has stated:

“We want to reform community sentences to ensure that offenders are properly punished for their crimes and effectively rehabilitated and we are still considering a variety of options. We will publish a consultation setting out our proposals in due course.”

In the courts in England and Wales, community sentences are the most widely utilised sanction. The media context for the moves on community sentences are pretty clear. The Daily Star cuts to the quick with its typically nuanced analysis headlined: ” Worst Crims Being Let Off “.The article goes on to assure us that “Thousands of criminals with 15 or more convictions are being let off with a slap on the wrist.”

The Daily Mail weighs in by reassuring its readers that the criminal justice system is just as soft as the Mail has long insisted: “4,500 serial offenders are let off with caution despite committing at least 15 crimes each… as Cameron pledges tougher community punishments”. (This continues  in the grand tradition of “Criminals ‘laughing’ at community sentences ” which was reported by the Mail some 3 years ago, and confirms that the middle-market tabloid is at least consistent in its analysis).  More on the Mail’s uniquely balanced reporting on probation here.

There is already evidence that existing community sentences are effective. According to evidence given the the House of Commons Justice committee last year by Juliet Lyons of the Prison Reform Trust:

“Community sentences are outperforming short prison sentences by 8%, which is an achievement, but if the mechanism is not there to promote that and to provide more opportunities for the courts to have those community sentences available to them, you could argue that Government are not capitalising on their success.”

Neither the mechanism nor the political will appears to be there. Populist punitivism means there will be no hesitation in allowing the electoral advantages of a tougher community sentencing policy to take precedence over the hard evidence of its (lack of) penal effectiveness.

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One Response to “The ‘Virtual Prison’ Trumps The Rehabilitation Revolution”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Community Sentences: A Problem With Perception? « Crime, Justice & Criminology - March 18, 2012

    […] has announced more details of their plans to ‘toughen up’ community sentencing options. The ‘virtual prison’, as this blog has observed, trumps the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. New measures are […]

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