Shine A Light

UK Election: Crime & Justice, what do the parties offer?

A leading advocate for penal reform assesses the parties’ manifestos.

Frances Crook
28 April 2015
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Manifesto nostalgia: Dixon of Dock Green, BBC TV, 1955 to 1976

I am relieved that crime and justice have hardly featured in the election campaign. Usually when they do it is because of a disaster. Who can forget Bill Clinton flying back to Arkansas to oversee an execution during his 1992 election campaign?

I have reviewed six of the main parties’ manifestos to see what has been included, and what has been omitted. Whilst there has been little heated debate about criminal justice policies the parties themselves have some interesting things to say.

Policing

The issue that all parties address is policing and they all say something quite similar, sounding like they want to create a Britain that is the television set for Dixon of Dock Green (for those of you who don’t remember, it was a TV show that started in black and white and ended in the 1970s that showed policing before the PACE [Police & Criminal Evidence Act] when they could give people a slapping and that made everything OK).

The parties seem to agree that what we need is more police on the beat.

All except the Conservatives want to get rid of, or almost get rid of, the police and crime commissioners, who were first elected across England and Wales in 2012, but no one is that clear about what sort of democratic system of accountability will be put in their place. The exception is Plaid Cymru that wants to put the police under the control of the Welsh Assembly.

Prisons

The two most pressing problems facing the penal system are the state of prisons and the state of community sentences. I searched in vain for detailed proposals for getting to grips with either of these.

Labour’s manifesto is particularly weak on prisons. It says that it will increase the amount of time that prisoners spend working and learning, which is welcome, but begs the question – how?

Let’s go back a bit before I look at what is needed and why Labour and other manifestos are avoiding the real problems.

In 2008 and 2009 the Howard League worked closely with Conservative shadow ministers on the idea of introducing real work into prisons.

We had tried to persuade Labour government ministers that getting prisoners busy was intrinsically a good thing, but they were stuck on delivering basic skills training to short-term prisoners and showed little interest in the 30,000 adult male long termers.

Shadow ministers developed a detailed policy for prisons that focussed on ‘prisons with a purpose’. In 2010 Kenneth Clarke led from the front by reducing the prison population by 3,000 and giving governors more autonomy and enthusiasm to get prisoners working.

It all collapsed in 2013 when Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and redistributed thousands of prisoners to already overcrowded jails, and, at the same time cut staff numbers by around 40 per cent.

In the past two years prisons have deteriorated into stinking, inert, violent, crowded and dangerous places.

This is the challenge facing an incoming government. The Liberal Democrats have a welcome presumption against short prison sentences that blight the lives of more than 60,000 people every year and some worthy sounding phrases about getting prisoners active.

Labour’s flagship policy appears to be keeping governors in one prison for longer.

The Conservatives seem blithely unconcerned by the chaos and misery inside prisons – a stark contrast with the party’s interest in this area of public policy when in opposition.

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No party has convincing policies to ameliorate the overcrowding crisis. Well meaning comments about getting people to work or to address their offending, or even to focus more on restorative justice, are empty if there are no robust proposals to stem the flow into prisons and deal with the overcrowding.

The resources to make prisons work with 85,000 men, women and children are never going to be forthcoming. The prison system can work properly only if it contains far fewer people and serves a coherent purpose.

How to restore the probation service?

The second key penal challenge is managing people on community sentences. Chris Grayling hurtled through a deconstruction of the century old probation service. There are now private companies divided into 21 areas running community penalties as well as a new sentence of 12 months supervision for the 60,000 men and women given short prison sentences.

This deconstruction was not piloted but was rolled out with undue speed despite the fact that private companies G4S and Serco are still under investigation for possible fraud on just this sort of community supervision. These companies were prohibited from bidding, but the perverse incentive to play the system is most likely what got them into trouble.

The change was controversial and Labour, Green, and Plaid opposed it. They now say they will try and unravel what they can but there is nothing in the manifestos about how they are going to oversee the contracts. The system is so badly constructed that if you apply proper oversight and scrutiny then it is likely the privateers will find their profits squeezed and walk away.

Already one of the big charities, Addaction, has pulled out of the Purple Futures consortium in Wales.

Previously Serco pulled out of running Unpaid Work orders across the whole of London. An incoming government has to be savvy in managing the new landscape or these big companies will run rings round it, at huge cost to the taxpayer and at great risk to future victims of crime.

There are some welcome commitments to developing restorative justice and this could help towards keeping people out of the penal system and so out of custody. All parties say they are going to support victims and Labour and LibDems suggest new legislation to enshrine additional rights for victims, particularly with the right to ask for a review of police and prosecution decisions.

Overall there is not much to celebrate, but not much to worry about either. There are no big new ideas that could have turned out to be disastrous, but nor are there any real attempts to face up to the challenges of the over-use of prison that results in overcrowding and the impending doom of community sentences. It could have been worse.

 


 

 

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