13:42, October 01 202 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-01 13:42:04
The Guardian view on Conservative criminal justice: back to the 1980s

The law and order policies unveiled this week by the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, are instructive not only for what they reveal about their party’s approach to criminal justice, but also to any upcoming election. Creating 10,000 new prison places, scrapping a plan to replace short sentences with community punishments and changing sentencing rules so that violent criminals are locked up for longer, are not part of any evidence-led platform. While the reversal of cuts in police numbers is welcome, and the extension of a scheme allowing members of the public to challenge sentences perceived as overly lenient is reasonable, elsewhere victims’ concerns were used as a fig leaf for a raft of measures that amount to a pitch for votes.

The UK’s prisons are at breaking point, with every inspection report a litany of overcrowding, filth, drug use and violence, and last week’s disturbance at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire was only the latest in a series of similar episodes. The courts and wider justice system face growing problems, even if these are often hidden from public view. Partly these are a consequence of cuts to police, courts, legal aid and Crown Prosecution Service budgets, but also other factors including the complexities surrounding digital evidence. The part-privatisation of the probation service by the former justice secretary Chris Grayling is acknowledged to have been a disaster – although it remains unclear whether the plan devised by David Gauke to sort it out will be any better. Reoffending rates are high. One-tenth of offenders are released not knowing where they will spend the night.

County lines drug gangs, singled out by Ms Patel as a scourge, are a complex problem. So is the falling number of convictions for rape. Yet while she offered new resources for dealing with drug gangs, her speech was notable for its lack of original ideas. Its “tough on crime” formula contained nothing that would have surprised Margaret Thatcher.

The world has moved on since the 1980s. Among European countries, England and Wales have more people imprisoned than any other country bar Poland – due in part to the approach pursued during the 1990s under New Labour. Scandinavian countries have far better records on rehabilitation and lower rates of offending. Even in the US, mass incarceration has critics on the right as well as the left. Under David Cameron and Theresa May, the Conservatives too were moving away from the most kneejerk, tabloid-pleasing reflexes, including by investing in new prisons – even if austerity undermined every attempt at progressive policymaking.

This is what makes the punitive, retro rhetoric not just misguided but shameless: after almost a decade in power, the Conservatives, and particularly the former justice secretary Michael Gove, know better. Yes, some people do wicked things and must be punished. But if part of prison’s purpose is to send people back out into society with something to contribute, not only does it not work; it frequently makes things worse. Many people, as well as politicians, know this. They know too about the over-representation in the prison population of ethnic minorities (particularly black men and boys); of people with mental illnesses, learning disabilities and histories of abuse, abandonment and addiction. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives appear not to care. Their overriding goal seems to be power, and they have identified a macho stance on law and order as one way to help them hold on to it. Ms Patel’s ridiculous promise to terrify criminals is just one of the ways in which they threaten to take the country backwards.