Prison works? No thanks, Jack

June 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

As Justice Secretary, it often felt like Jack Straw was motivated more by a desire to protect the public from liberals than from criminals. In his inglorious time in government, Straw’s Labour Party oversaw a record rise in the prison population, dangerous levels of overcrowding and a disastrous early release scheme which completely battered public confidence in the courts. He ignored British and European law on prisoners’ voting rights, fed us policies packed with pure populist junk and blithely suggested that those who complained simply didn’t care enough about the victims of crime.

So it’s entirely fitting that in his well-deserved stint in opposition, Straw has taken to the Daily Mail to warn once more of the middle-class liberal ‘hand-wringers’ who’ll soon fling open the prison gates and try to cure hardened thugs with hugs & therapy.

As Straw tells it, crime only began to fall in the mid-90’s because of the draconian sentencing regime imposed by Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard. Labour continued his ‘good work’ for the next 13 years and have declining crime rates to show for it, at the small cost of a massively expanded prison population. Now, thanks to an ‘alliance’ between Ken Clarke and 57 Lib Dem MPs, all that good work threatens to be reversed, replaced by liberal ‘hand-wringing’ (a phrase he uses four times) and ignorance of the true cost of crime.

He is, of course, being utterly disengenuous. The speech given by the new Justice Secretary was not the result of some Rasputin-style whispering from Liberal Democrats, but a continuation of Tory policy which existed before there was even a prospect of a coalition. It was the Tories’ ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper which suggested they were finally ready to ditch the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard and raise the profile of rehabilitation as a means of reducing crime. The reason Straw invokes some liberal conspiracy is the same reason the Lib Dems have been invoked as boogeymen by numerous shadow ministers in recent weeks – in the hope that they can turn ‘liberal’ into the new ‘tory’.

There’s still much uncertainty in the coalition’s plan for penal reform, and what happens in the criminal justice system is inevitably influenced by the state of the economy and the availability of housing & jobs for newly-released prisoners. Change of policy, even from the rotten one they inherited, might not necessarily mean change for the better. But what sets the coalition apart from Labour, even at this early stage, is the intention of getting the prison population under control. For Straw, leaving government with a prison population of over 84,000 is almost something to be proud of; for Clarke and the coalition, it is a problem which needs to addressed.

But we should, perhaps, save a few meagre words of thanks for Straw as he whinges into obscurity, for he leaves us with clear dividing lines between his departed government and its successor. We can either long for the return of the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard & Straw, which led to massive overcrowding, early prisoner release and an inexorable rise in the prison population, or we can hope that a more pragmatic, rehabilitation-focused regime will replace it and help bring that population under control. I know which side I’m rooting for.


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  1. […] in New Labour | Leave a Comment Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in government. We could […]

  2. […]   July 3, 2010 at 1:00 pm Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in […]

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