Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Prison reform - we need to ride out inevitable press hysteria

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff Mark.

I won't be holding my breath for any restraint from the media. Or the Conservative backbenches, for that matter.

Voter said...

I am sorry to say that I have a somewhat different take on this.

I include bad outcomes for the public in terms of criminal behaviour in the merits. It is not separate.

So, the media is entitled to make a big thing of it where things goes wrong precisely because of the merits. Far from being a bad thing, it is vital that they do so for the sake of democratic accountability. Accountability may be irritating if you are in power but it is still important.

Governments often try to spin their mistakes.

We have to make a choice between evidence-led policy and highly experimental policy.

I favour the former. This may result in slower progress than some may like but so what? At least, when the media attacks then, the government can refer to the experts to back itself up and the storm will die down.

If you go purely from some political instinct, you have no such defense.

Mark Thompson said...


I wish it were that simple. In an ideal world the media would report the extreme cases but set them in a context of the overall evidence about the efficacy of the policy in question. That way, if the policy was demonstrably failing then we would all know about it and could base our judgement on the reports.

In the real world we know it will not happen like that. There will be one or two horrible incidents that it could be argued would not have happened had the perpetrators been in prison and these will be taken as "evidence" that the policy has failed. They will not be interested in the facts and research underpinning the policy as to whether recidivism rates are falling, i.e. whether the policy is serving its purpose. Not when there are screaming headlines to print and victims relatives to exploit in order to sell more papers.

In the face of that sort of onslaught the government can make its case but it is at risk of being swamped by the coverage of the extreme cases (and I reiterate you will get them under any system, in and of themselves they will prove little as far as the wider policy is concerned - hard cases make bad law).

And god help us if there are 2 or 3 cases in quick succession that fit into this category. Then it will be an "epidemic" and it will be "all the evidence we need" that the policy had utterly failed. I can almost write the Richard Littlejohn column myself.

That is why as I say we need to make sure that the evidence is rigorous, honest and shared openly. If the policy does not work, we need to know. But we equally need to give it a chance to see if it does.