Who will stand up to the Daily Mail paper tigers?

Cameron’s caving in yesterday to the deep and unpleasant prejudices of the hard-right retributionist lobby has banged shut the brief momentary expectation of a more liberal penal policy. The objective of cutting prison numbers by 6,500 (a fairly arbitrary proportion of the 85,000 currently detained) was removed by scrapping 50% discounts across the board (not only in rape cases), failing to rationalise indeterminate public protection sentences which keep thousands detained long after their jail terms have expired, and announcing new mandatory jail terms. This is wrong on every ground.

It undoes the Ken Clarke programme of reducing mass incarceration in favour of greater rehabilitation. It will increase expenditure on the prison system which already costs some £3.5bn a year, with each extra place costing £40,000 a year. And it yet again turns a blind eye to the scandal of detaining far too many women, minor offenders, and persons with mental health or drug problems. And all for the most disreputable of reasons – to appease the tabloids.

The problem with the Clarke reforms, before Cameron virtually buried them, was that they were arbitrarily based on saving certain targets of expenditure and addressed to the symptoms of crime rather than the real underlying causes. The central problem is that Britain locks up a far higher proportion of the population than almost any other country in the EU, and one of the highest in the world (though far exceeded by the US and USSR). Britain jails 149 per 100,000 population, compared with 95 in France, 92 in Germany, 82 in Italy, 74 in Sweden and 62 in Denmark. The average for the EU is 123.

Reducing the UK’s excessive dependence on prison demands, not some paring down of costs to fit the Chancellor’s predetermined goal for cutbacks, but a fundamental reconsideration of what prison is really for. Prison should be largely confined to those guilty of the most dangerous offences, including murder, manslaughter, serious violence, rape, and the running of organised criminal syndicates, etc. That would allow over time the gradual withdrawal from the prison system, as and when secure units became established in communities, of those needing treatment and support – the majority of women currently in prison, drug addicts, those on the borderline of mental illness, and those often poorly educated and illiterate who drift in and out of prison for repeat though minor offences.

There are already several radical alternatives to prison in operation now, such as the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre and the Red Hook Community Justice Centre in Brooklyn. They have a special power to sentence offenders to intensive 5-days-a-week community payback. As opposed to the current obsession with punishment which takes any responsibility away from offenders, the heart of this new approach is a change of attitude, a change of purpose. The record of this kind of restorative justice turning lives around is now well established. And it’s far more cost-effective than building more prisons. But it will demand political will to face down the ugly barracking from the Daily Mail and the tabloids. After years of spin, manipulation and cynicism, time surely now for conviction politics.