Tough talk costs lives

Richard Garside
Thursday, 24 November 2016

Michael Gove is the latest politician to accept that we lock up too many people in prison.

'It is an inconvenient truth – which I swerved to an extent while in office – that we send too many people to prison', he told an audience in London last week. 'Prison is expensive, anti-social, inefficient and often de-humanising', he added.

Mr Gove's 'swerve' while Justice Secretary unfortunately took in the distracting irrelevance of 'reform prisons'. He would have done better to take on the far more important task of reforming prisons. Key to this task, as Mr Gove now appears to recognise, is a reduction in the number of prisoners needlessly locked up.

Appearing before the House of Commons Justice Committee earlier this week, Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, said that with the prison population being 'very, very high at the moment', there was a strong case for 'really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties'.

Such is the state of the debate about alternatives to imprisonment that the most senior judge in the land is reduced to emphasising just how tough he wants to be.

The problem here is that no community sentence is ever likely to be as 'tough' as six months in Pentonville prison. David Cameron appeared to understand this when, in a speech in February this year, he called for 'a new approach' to prisons policy, one that did not 'trap us into often false choices between so-called tough or soft approaches'.

In the same speech, and with no sense of irony, Mr Cameron promised to 'dramatically toughen up community sentences'.

Last year, Michael Gove, told the Justice Committee: 'I do believe that there is the possibility through electronic monitoring, tagging, to find ways of making sure there are some offenders in the future who can have genuinely tough and effective community sentences'.

In March 2013 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government promised 'tough and effective' community sentences for women.

The previous October, Mr Gove's predecessor as Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, wrote in a Foreword to a consultation response that 'tougher community sentences may give more options to sentencers who currently feel that prison is the only robust choice'.

Ken Clarke, another former Justice Secretary, announced in March 2012 that the government was 'overhauling community sentences to ensure they are tough, credible and robust'.

Jack Straw, Justice Secretary during the last Labour government, said in February 2008:

Prison is the right place for the most serious and violent offenders but there are currently people in prison who would be better rehabilitated and therefore less likely to reoffend elsewhere... so we must ensure that courts have tough community sentences at their disposal to deal with less serious, non-violent offenders.

The government was 'bringing in tough new community sentences', the former Labour government's strategic plan for criminal justice stated in July 2004.

The Halliday review of sentencing, published in July 2001, found evidence of a 'toughening up of sentencing', including 'increased numbers of the more intensive of community sentences'.

Where has all this tough talk got us? In 2001, when Halliday was being published, the prison population stood at around 65,000. When Lord Thomas was speaking of 'really tough' community sentences earlier this week, it stood at over 85,000.

Far from acting as 'alternatives' to prison, community sentences tend towards widening the net of punishment and coercion, as research by the Centre some years ago, as well as more recently, has shown.

Tough talk on community sentences merely feeds this particular beast. This year's 'tough' community penalty becomes next year's 'soft' one. And so it goes on.

The collateral damage of all this rhetoric can be found in the high levels of suicide and self-harm among prisoners; of stressful working conditions for prison staff and living conditions for prisoners; and of deteriorating buildings and infrastructure.

Tough talk really does cost lives. It is time for it to stop.