I was listening to John Pienaar's weekly podcast last week. The guest was my old sparring partner Shane Greer and one of the things they discussed was Ken Clarke's plan to ensure that prison is not used as a punishment so often and to make more use of community sentences.
Tuesday, 6 July 2010
I already blogged last week about how I think Clarke's plan is potentially very good. On the podcast they were debating the merits of this but the point was made that irrespective of how well community sentences and other alternatives to prison may work out, all it will take is one or two high profile cases of criminals who would have previously been in prison and who commit an horrendous crime for the press to go ballistic about how the policy had failed.
Sadly I think they were both right. The media in this country has never been very good at calmly assessing the evidence. It is possible that a more non-custodial approach may reduce recidivism. It may be that a change in policy could be a huge step forward in reforming our criminal justice system for the better. The problem is we may never find out. It will only take a few high profile cases that the press/media are able to focus all attention on (probably with the help of the opposition judging by Jack Straw's initial reaction last week) for it to be politically very difficult for the government to continue with the policy.
We need to try and encourage more use of evidence. Whatever system we have in place there will always be problems but we need to assess the overall impact. Critically we need to judge if reoffending rates are reduced. In order to do that we need to give the policy time and for there to be enough evidence on which to base an assessment.
If it turns out that changing the policy is demonstrably a bad move (from the actual evidence, not the press coverage) then I will be the first to concede that we need a different approach. But please, let's make sure we take the decision for the right reasons, not because of screaming tabloid headlines.