Party conference season is a strange time. Politicians who are usually met with venom and disdain are doted on by applauding zealots. So the conditions are not usually very conducive to hugely radical or brave policy announcements.
But given this tumultuous historic moment, with the Scottish referendum, the rise of UKIP, economic crisis, the European question, and the imminent general election, was there any sign of a welcome U-turn in criminal justice policy?
Certainly not from the Tories. Obviously the biggest hullabaloo in Chris Grayling's speech was about his proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It fits neatly with Grayling's populist rhetoric about the criminal justice system being about the rights of the victim not the offender. That's a rather cynical cover for trying to prevent national governments being held to account for human rights violations. A victim's law, building on the existing victim's code, is intended to set this in statute.
The Justice Secretary's other offerings fell under the themes of:
- tougher penalties for law-breakers (more punitive elements to community sentences, cracking down on cautions, ending of automatic parole for those convicted of 'most serious' crimes);
- expansion of prisons (by the end of next year there will be 3,000 more prison places than when the Conservatives entered government)
- stricter prison regimes (especially in YOIs, prisons that look less like 'holiday camps')
- improved resettlement and mentoring (new network of prisons which specialise in preparing prisoners for release)
- more education and work inside prisons (the advent of the secure college, although the recent premature withdrawal of A4e from a contract to provide education programmes in 12 London prisons; and the revelations from the joint thematic review of resettlement for adult offenders, hardly fills me with confidence that this will have any actual positive effect)
- addressing the needs of prisoners with mental health needs (concentrating mental health expertise in prisons, but is prison really the most appropriate place to treat people who are mentally ill?)
Theresa May talked mainly about ISIL and 'British values', but did promise legislation if the police don't continue to improve on the disproportionate use of stop and search on ethnic minorities.
The Liberal Democrats
Simon Hughes gave a raft of rather progressive policies, which, if they were debated by his coalition partners, seem to have been largely ignored over the last four years. Hardly surprising given the salience that punishment of lawbreakers has with voters.
He made the observation that many people in prison shouldn't really be there. Prisoners on short-term sentences, those locked up for personal drug use, prisoners with mental health needs, and women were all identified as people for whom incarceration is particularly detrimental.
Hughes proposed a women's justice board to develop alternatives to custody for women, devolution of the youth custody budget to local authorities, and greater independence for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Sadiq Khan didn't really reveal anything substantial about the future direction of Labour criminal justice policy, except a vague comment about punishing those convicted of crimes but reforming them too. It seems the boat won't be rocked too much. He promised to block the Conservatives' plan to abolish the Human Rights Act, and prevent withdrawal from the ECHR.
Other proposals from Khan included a victim's law, support for the children of prisoners, the devolution of youth custody budgets to local authorities, and bringing 18-21 year olds under the remit of the Youth Justice Board.
Interestingly, he did talk about extending freedom of information laws to private contractors like G4S and Serco. Although he mentioned the chaos in the probation service, he didn't say anything about bringing it back into public hands. So we'll be able to see how companies are profiting from the chaos, but not be able to do much about it.
Yvette Cooper tried to prove Labour will spend responsibly, declaring that her reforms to the police would be costed. She said she would abolish police and crime commissioners (PCCs), and use the savings to prevent projected cuts of 1,100 police officers next year. A clever move, simultaneously reversing the charge of profligate spending and exploiting Tory cuts to police numbers. However, she didn't explain what kind of governance framework will replace PCCs, so we can't tell whether these cost savings might be negated by new arrangements.
So in answer to my original question, it seems that the direction of criminal justice policy will remain the same. The two main parties aren't showing any signs of reversing prison expansion or criminal justice privatisation. Although the Liberal Democrats seem to understand the problem a bit better, there is no reason to think their impotence on this issue won't be replicated in a future coalition, and we are yet to see how many seats they will lose next year.