It’s not so much a magic money tree but a whole orchard that Boris Johnson seems to have found. What else could explain his latest announcement – a pledge to create 10,000 new prison places? Smells a lot like Dominic Cummings and an early general election. But will Priti Patel and the Prime Minister follow through – snap poll or not – on ploughing £2.5bn into our ailing justice system in all the wrong places?
After almost a decade of austerity and particularly swingeing cuts at the Ministry of Justice under Chris Grayling, there is no shortage of ways to spend this money, which could shift lives away from prison. Of course, Johnson and co didn’t consult experts, preferring their own brand of back-of-a-fag-packet, populist policy-making.
That amount of money could help revive legal aid, restore funding to enable the CPS to run competently again, re-introduce a decent court translation system and deal with the long delays to trials. The justice system is full of people who have experienced and create a huge amount of harm. Tackling the root causes of crime to stop the cycle of harm is a housing issue, a mental health issue, a drug and alcohol issue. £2.5bn is a lot of youth workers, nurses, social workers – skilled experts in their field who know what works.
If you really cared about how to create conditions in which fewer lives are devastated by crime, you could follow the evidence base. Doing this led the previous Justice Secretary, David Gauke, to consider abolishing custodial sentencing under six months – because the evidence supports an increased reduction in reoffending on a community sentence. Prisons are actively harmful to those incarcerated in them. They school you in crime. Two thirds of them are overcrowded. The rates of violent attacks, self-harm and suicide have never been higher. They cost the taxpayer a fortune, and the National Audit Office has found that there is no correlation between prison numbers and the crime rate. Why would we build more?
Given that almost all of those in our prisons are going to be released, you’d think a new government would be keen to follow the evidence and prevent reoffending as a priority. But no. Fear and casting division served them well in the referendum campaign, and they employ that again here. ‘The public must be kept safe from criminals,’ they say, as if criminals live somewhere else and are somehow not the same as the public. Any member of the public can call the police about the apparent sounds of domestic violence coming from a neighbour’s flat, as another member of the public hassles his girlfriend. Not a criminal, just a member of the public.
This government isn’t even pretending to aim for a reduction in reoffending rates. Robert Buckland, our new Justice Secretary, told the Today programme that “the main aim is to ensure maximum confidence in the sentencing system”. The Tories want their potential voters to feel like things are getting safer, whether they actually are or not. So that it feels reassuring, like a large number on the side of a bus.
All of which gets to the heart of the matter: power, and who wields it. It’s about who can take coke with impunity and who is criminalised for it. Who can break the ministerial code and get a promotion. The reality is a system that means BAME people are four times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. A system that is full of the poor, the mentally ill and the addicted. And yet Johnson and Patel have formed a comedy double act from which we are now meant to take lessons in morality, when their gilded lives are a cacophony of privilege that has helped them to elude the long arm of the law.
This would be just a cruel irony if the stakes weren’t so high. This is life and death stuff for so many in our communities. You cannot fight fear with fear and expect good results: Johnson and Patel, aided by Cummings, know this. They are banking on it, in fact. You fight fear with solutions, engendering hope based on practical, implementable ideas. Crime ravages the lives of all involved. Only the most immoral, irresponsible people would actively pursue damaging policy in this area to further their own political cause. But this premiership seems hellbent on doing exactly that.