By A psychology Assistant at a Southern prison, from insidetime issue September 2011
A strain of vindictive stupidity stalks the land. At a time when our public services are being restructured, reduced or cut completely we have been offered a way to make savings that would have had a positive impact on one of the most difficult areas of public policy and possibly even changed the country’s approach to penal justice.
A recent U-turn on sentencing policy is a huge upset to the justice minister Ken Clarke, who had planned to end the rise in prison numbers and begin a “rehabilitation revolution” to reduce this country’s re-offending rate. It seemed like an idea whose time had come, with drastic changes needed to save money and a Tory party in power who wished to disavow their “nasty party” image. Clarke’s proposals were distinctly un-Tory, but they were also clearly welcomed by the party leadership, who would have known exactly what they were getting when they appointed him.
That the Coalition was forced to change its mind on the policy at a time when the argument for economic austerity had been all but won is a sign that public anger towards offenders is the only force sufficiently dangerous to change the mind of a government hell bent on its drive to reduce the size of the state.
Pictures of “Baby P” galvanised the nation’s conscience three years ago and forced the Labour government to address the chronic under-support of child protection services. Since then, this campaign has been more or less forgotten as social services are forced to make job cuts in the wake of massive budget cuts to local government.
In the current climate when the government remains immune to the lobbying of disability rights groups, healthcare professionals and public sector unions, there is much to learn about our priorities. We live in a country where to be “too lenient” is a political problem but to be negligent of the needs of the extremely vulnerable is not. News of cuts to disability benefit, to mental health and social services have created nothing like the furore raised to the suggestion that we reduce the amount of time offenders spend in prison from two thirds of their sentence to a half.
This change would have saved the Ministry of Justice £130m, but now that saving will have to come from other aspects of its work. One of the prime candidates is the probation service, which monitors the behaviour of offenders upon release. It will be a supreme irony that the same vituperative public who demanded a reversal of sentencing policy in the name of their safety will very likely be out at further risk by the u-turn.