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Tough on offenders. But why?

Written by  Richard Garside (29/02/12)

It is truth universally acknowledged that a Prime Minister seeking to neutralise damaging headlines will talk tough on crime.

So it was that last week a Downing Street mired in controversy over NHS reforms and the Work Programme chose to stress just how tough the Prime Minister is when it comes to community sentences.

According to reports, the Prime Minister wants to toughen community sentences by preventing those under curfew 'from leaving home for most of the day'. He also thinks courts should have powers to confiscate credit cards, passports and driving licenses.

But how new is any of this? The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is already set to increase the maximum daily curfew periods from 12 to 16 hours. Short of allowing only the briefest of forays into the outside world this would appear to meet the Prime Minister's 'most of the day' requirement. The Bill also contains powers to prevent foreign travel though not, as far as I can tell, credit card and driving license confiscation.

In short, most of what Mr Cameron reportedly wants is already in the Bill. As for credit cards and driving licenses, he and his advisers can probably live with the disappointment if confiscation powers do not follow. Still, the Prime Minister, like Tony Blair before him, is clearly not averse to eye catching initiatives that distract attention from other, more weighty, matters.

News management aside, should community sentences in any case be toughened up further? After all, as the Guardian piece quoted earlier also pointed out, 'as prisons reach capacity levels, the prime minister is looking to strengthen public opinion over non-custodial sentences'. If the public believe community sentences are tough rather than a skive, the argument goes, it makes it easier for judges and magistrates to hand them out instead of prison sentences.

The current spike in prison numbers has upset the Ministry of Justice's budget projections, as the Ministry's Permanent Secretary Sir Suma Chakrabarti told the Commons Public Accounts Committee in January. Like the previous Labour government, the coalition continues to look to community sentences as a key means of containing the growth in prison numbers and managing tight budgets.

Yet it remains far from clear that investing in ever tougher community sentences will deliver the hoped for benefits in reduced prison numbers and saved money. The growth in imprisonment in recent years has been matched by a growth in community sentences, as a recent report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies demonstrates.

Indeed we need to take seriously the possibility that the ongoing promotion of more community sentences could be part of the problem of high imprisonment, rather than part of the solution; contributing to, rather than tackling, a general climate of toughness.

As other work done by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has shown, the real drivers of high imprisonment are political, social and economic, rather than criminal justice, in nature.

Tinkering with sentences will only get us so far and could make the problem worse.

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