Justice at the crossroads

Richard Garside
Friday, 23 July 2010

Is the promising reformist agenda set by Ken Clarke, the new Lord Chancellor, about to be snuffed out at birth?

Yesterday one of his ministers, Crispin Blunt, gave an interesting speech at a Nacro training centre in West Norwood. I spoke briefly to Mr Blunt when the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies hosted Ken Clarke a few weeks ago. He struck me as a decent sort, interested in ideas and open to discussion. I went along to his speech to hear what he had to say. We got a few good jokes, a couple of intriguing possibilities (the possible end of indeterminate sentencing for instance) and the beginnings of a clear moral vision.

At one point he remarked that the high UK prison population was a ‘national disgrace’. Asked how the government would drive through reform in the teeth of populist agitation he had a one word answer: ‘Evidence’.

Today we learn that Crispin Blunt has been censured by Downing Street and lined up for a swift return to the back benches. His mistake? To suggest that prisoners needed some hope and enjoyment, not merely grinding boredom and misery. To argue that there was a case for the reduction, or possible abolition of the ill-thought-through indeterminate sentences. And to make a joke about middle class oiks for whom different rules applied (interpreted as a veiled reference to David Cameron).

Downing Street’s reaction is a pretty depressing signal that evidence and humanity is not in order when it comes to prisons policy. Nor does it seem to have much of a sense of humour. Oh dear.

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