How Labour should respond to Ken Clarke’s sentencing reforms

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The Labour leadership is making a sad mistake in opposing the government’s decision to abolish IPPs (Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection), as I argued in a new blog post earlier this week.  The other sentencing changes announced last night by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and adequately summarised on the Guardian’s website here, also deserve general support by all small-l liberals, despite justified misgivings over the expansion of offences that are to attract mandatory life sentences.  It would make a welcome change if the Labour front bench were to respond to the reform programme as a whole on the following lines, which I commend to the shadow Justice Secretary, the Rt Hon Sadiq Khan (also my MP):

“The most important of the new measures announced by the Justice Secretary is the welcome decision to replace Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) by tough fixed-term sentences for the most serious offences.  This should help significantly to reduce the excessively large prison population, of which more than 6,000 are currently serving IPPs, over 3,500 of them having already served their tariffs (the part of their sentences set for punishment).  I welcome Ken Clarke’s assurance that only some 20 of those 6,000 IPPs would have qualified for the new mandatory life sentences for very serious sexual and violent crimes.  Labour has serious reservations about introducing mandatory life sentences for crimes other than murder, as the government now proposes: we think judges, not politicians, should decide each sentence in the light of the circumstances of each case;  but Ken Clarke has promised that ‘Judges would retain the discretion not to impose a mandatory sentence if it would be unjust to do so’, which should preserve reasonable flexibility.  Mandatory life sentences will apply only to cases where an offender has twice been convicted of a serious offence attracting a sentence of at least 10 years on each occasion, so in practice the addition to the prison population resulting from this measure should be small.

“We especially welcome the proposal for a four-month mandatory prison sentence for aggravated knife possession for 16 and 17-year-olds, but not for younger children. Those convicted of ‘using a knife or offensive weapon to threaten and endanger’ are to be given a four-month detention and training order, two months in a young offenders institution and the rest undergoing training in the community.  Adults will receive an automatic six-month sentence for the same offence.  This should help to meet widespread concern about the menace of knife crime.

“Our concern until now that if IPPs are abolished, prisoners will be released while still a threat to our security, is adequately allayed by the promise of longer sentences for the most serious offences, allowing more time for reform and rehabilitation, and by the decision that serious offenders will not become eligible to apply for release on licence or parole until they have served two-thirds of their sentences, instead of the current half-way mark.

“It is a sorry indictment of the coalition government that these generally positive reforms have been so long delayed by widely reported opposition to them within the Cabinet and no doubt also from the unregenerate ranks of reactionary Tory back benchers.  If the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, with their claims to be the champions of liberal reform, have been supporting the Justice Secretary against his right-wing critics in the long drawn-out argument over these reforms, we have yet to hear of it.  It is not only over Europe that both the Conservative party and the government are split from top to bottom, with their Lib Dem allies standing helplessly on the touchline.”

Unfortunately, however, I have little confidence that Ed Miliband or Sadiq Khan will take anything like such a positive line in response to Ken Clarke’s reform programme.  Labour is apparently still trapped in the retrograde, pathologically risk-averse mind-set of successive New Labour home secretaries on the subject of prisons, crime and punishment.  It’s time to return to Labour’s liberal reformist roots.  How bizarre that it’s a Tory Secretary of State for Justice who is blazing the trail.

Update:  The Justice Secretary was quoted on the Daily Politics programme yesterday as having said he would be consulting about the idea of making it easier for Parole Boards to “let out” those serving the Indeterminate Sentences that he’s getting rid of.  You can hear the relevant words here, beginning at 18’50″.  This is the first reference I have seen or heard in the interviews and media coverage since Mr Clarke’s proposals were published last night to their implications for existing IPP prisoners.  It’s encouraging, as far as it goes.  But it will be controversial.

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