03 July 2010

Crime, prisons and enlightened Tories

Although it may seem a little surprising to Canadians, not all conservatives want to throw ever more people into prison. Britain's Conservative secretary of state for justice, Kenneth Clarke, has strongly criticized the "Victorian bang 'em up" approach to incarceration that has prevailed in the U.K. for the past 20 years. In contradiction to his party's orthodoxy, he argues that, "In our worst prisons, it produces tougher criminals," and, "Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug dependent." And all this, he insists, without leaving the public any safer.

Clarke was in charge of prisons as home secretary in the early nineties, and finds the doubling of the prison population since then astonishing, saying he would have dismissed it "as an impossible and ridiculous prediction if it had been put to me in a forecast in 1992." He is particularly concerned about the 60,000 prisoners serving short sentences and their 60 per cent and rising recidivism rate. "Many of them end up losing their jobs, their homes and their families during their short time inside," he observed.

He suggests a far more constructive approach would be to make prisons places of education, hard work and change, and to provide rigorously enforced community sentences that get offenders off drugs and alcohol and into jobs. To achieve this, he supports Conservative plans for a "rehabilitation revolution" which would involve the non-profit and private sectors in programs to change offenders inside and outside prison, and paying them for results.

Given that Britain has the largest prison-building program in Europe at a time when his government is budget-cutting, Clarke may be principally concerned about saving money. Nonetheless, his concern should lead to a greater emphasis on restorative justice. Now if only our government will take a cue from its Conservative brother.

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