Coalition seems to be going soft on crime

It’s the end of the first term of this Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.

It’s been fascinating but above all extraordinary, as these two parties have entered a new upside-down world.

Take penal policy. I am tough on crime, as well as tough on the causes of crime.

What I could guarantee as a Minister is that whatever we did on crime and disorder as a Government, the then Conservative Opposition would shout ‘Not tough enough’.

Two years ago a national newspaper published photographs of long-term female prisoners at Holloway Prison performing in a fancy-dress show. A number of the prisoners were dressed a devils and vampires.

Some of these same prisoners were on life sentences for murder.

Understandably their bereaved victims were deeply offended by what they saw.

The newspapers called for a change in policy. They were backed by Conservative spokesmen.

I very rapidly changed the rules. I had no objection to prisoners taking part in drama, but I did say that there had to be a test of public acceptability.

Last week, out of the blue, the new (Conservative) Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt, evidently trying to out-liberal the Liberals, announced the repeal of my rules.

Prisoners could suit themselves in future.

I was castigated for ‘Dancing to the tune of the tabloids’.

This change lasted all of 24 hours before the Prime Minister took fright, and re-imposed my rules!

But he has not yet straightened out his Prisons Minister, or Justice Secretary, on the matter of short-term prisoners.

There are too many of them, we are told; they often go on to re-offend.

If we cut the 60,000 who receive sentences of six months or less each year we could reduce the record 85,000 in jail in England and Wales.

It’s simplistic nonsense. It’s true that 60,000 people a year are sentenced to six months or less. But precisely because their sentences are short – often very short – there’s only around 5,000 such prisoners in jail at any one time.

It’s true, too, that many go on to re-offend once they’re released. But these are the hard-core repeat offenders. All but a tiny handful – four per cent – have at least one previous conviction or caution; three-quarters have seven or more previous convictions.

So they are the people who’ve failed on community punishments, not the ones who have succeeded.

They are put inside not for trivia but for offences of domestic violence, assault on the police, robbery and such like.

But, on top of going soft on these offenders, the new Justice Ministers are talking of abolishing the ‘indeterminate sentence for public protection’ (IPP) introduced in 2003 with Conservative support, for serious repeat offenders who show no sign of reform via traditional sentences.

In one of the election Leader’s Debates, David Cameron spoke eloquently of how his mother, a JP, had felt compelled to jail such offenders, since every other thing had failed.

He was right in what he said then.

I just hope he uses a little of his summer to straighten out some of his colleagues in this very odd marriage which passes for a coalition.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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