Friday, 26 January 2007

Being A Liberal Takes Bottle

A convicted paedophile was spared a prison sentence yesterday because of a government directive to judges that UK prisons are full and of course the 'hang em & flog em' brigade are up in arms.

Actually in this instance they are right, but for the wrong reasons. The paedophile should have gone to prison but he didn't not because the government are mamby-pamby liberals or because they haven't built enough prisons.

No, it's because they are too trigger happy when it comes to sentencing policies.

It started with Michael Howard, the Tory Home Secretary who proclaimed in 1993 that 'prison works' and brought in stiffer sentencing guidelines. Since then the prison population has increased by 85%, but unfortunately he was wrong. Prison doesn't work - just under two thirds of prisoners re-offend within three years of their release.

But no subsequent politicians have the courage to question this received wisdom, particularly New Labour ones who are so keen to show that they are even tougher on crime than the Tories. So we continue to fill up our prisons with petty criminals and drug addicts at a cost of something like £40k per prisoner per year. And we do so at an alarming rate, for every 10,000 in the UK there are 148 prisoners - this is the worst rate in Europe compared to 85 per 10,000 in France and Germany.

To remedy this and to start ensuring that prisons are for the people that really belong there requires a bit of genuine bravery on the part of politicians. It is very easy to be a macho vigilante and proclaim yourself tough on crime, but it takes a bit more nerve to think about it intelligently. With the political compass oscillating so wildly that the traditional 'principles' of Tory and Labour have disappeared these days, mouthing platitudes about crime is an easy way of gaining popular support. But playing to the lowest common denominator is a dangerous game - remember the hysteria about paedophiles and the mobs who petrol bombed paediatricians' offices ?

To change this means having the nerve to think the un-thinkable and stand up to knee-jerk reactions: Decriminalise soft drugs and prostitution. Overhaul the remand system (only 1 in 5 prisoners held on remand are actually convicted). Look at alternatives to imprisoning those who fail to pay fines. And have a sentencing system that prioritises crimes against the person over crimes against property.

That's just for starters. Then we might have some room in prison for people who actually belong there.

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