Ian Acheson

Boris Johnson is right to talk tough on crime. But can he deliver?

Boris Johnson is right to talk tough on crime. But can he deliver?
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Remember #rorywalks? This was the hashtag created to follow the progress of Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart as he travelled around Britain meeting people in places detached from mainstream politics. One encounter that sticks in my mind happened when he met a couple from east London, who told him that they wouldn’t start a family because their local area was too unsafe to bring a child into the world.

Whether apocryphal or not, it is clear that there are parts of Britain where criminality and incivility has become normal, battering the morale of our most vulnerable citizens. The public mood is not receptive to further ‘understanding’ of people who seem to be able to offend with impunity or the legions of experts and publicly-funded charities that dominate the airwaves endlessly contextualising and excusing appalling behaviour as a societal, rarely an individual responsibility. Labour, too, buys into this view: wannabe MP Ali Milani, who is hoping to take Boris Johnson's seat at the next election, wrote on Twitter: 'I saw a lot of friends pulled into crime. It was always about poverty, under-investment and lack of opportunity. Was never because they weren’t stopped and searched'.

Into this fray steps our new Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has made bold announcements on extra police and prison places; 20,000 new police officers will compete to fill 10,000 new prison places with wrong’uns. Home Secretary Priti Patel wants terror to be transferred from people cowering in their homes for fear of knife crime to those doing the harm. Prison sentences, so compromised by misleading complexity that it’s not even clear judges passing them understand them will be made simple and early release abolished. Do your bird, is the message from the Tories.

The criminal justice commentariat, that blob of hand-wringing, right on, prisoner friendly sentiment composed of the same people endlessly shuttling from well-paid senior public to charitable sinecures – and back again – is choking on its collective latte. I suspect the public will lap up this muscular fare. But will it actually mean anything? 

The 20,000 extra officers pledge is actually a reinstatement of cops lost as a result of ill-conceived, mendacious and ideologically crazy austerity policies. These cuts have all but trashed the once unassailable Conservative brand on law and order (I’ve written about it in detail here).

Suffice to say this volte face by Boris Johnson is a welcome one then. But it will need enormous resourcing to enable training, let alone deployment. Money (and accountability) for boosting recruits should go directly to the elected Policing and Crime Commissioners rather than be left in the dead hands of Home Office civil servants. The new officers should primarily be deployed to community policing, where they can be used to restore public faith in visible authority in places abandoned to criminality.

The best way to run a criminal justice system is to stop people getting on that dismal conveyor belt of offending and reoffending in the first place. But it isn't enough to simply put more bobbies on the beat. When these 10,000 new prison places become available in new-build prisons they will, of course, need to be run by suitable and sufficient numbers of new front line prison staff; the country's forgotten emergency service.

In the first half of this decade, 7,000 prison officers were removed from the front line to meet Government austerity cuts. Most of this ideological vandalism happened under the stewardship of then-justice secretary Chris Grayling. Out went thousands of years’ experience running very difficult and volatile places at the best of times. As sure as night follows day, down went every metric of decency, safety and order across the entire service.

Recruitment of additional staff is now underway with some alacrity. But there’s a hole in this bucket. Last year, a third of newly-appointed front line prison officers left after less than a year in post. Chaos on prison landings, poor support from managers and poor pay vie for the most popular reason for these expensively trained staff voting with their boots. Broken staff can’t help fix broken people.

The creation of modern prisons will at least ease the burden on some of our awful Victorian local establishments, most of which now blink bright red on the performance and safety dashboard. One such private prison, HMP Birmingham, was judged to be so bad after a visit from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, it was taken back from G4S by the state in April this year.

It’s imperative that overcrowding and squalor is relieved and violence is substantially cut; these factors, joined by rampant drug misuse, are the four horsemen of the prison apocalypse.

So Boris Johnson is not quite on the money when he calls for beefed up ‘security.’ In the strict sense of the word, prisons are secure – very few people escape from the ‘closed’ estate. They are, however, emphatically not safe with record levels of assault and self-harm. We need an all-out assault to restore order and control on our prison landings. Without this happening first and foremost, any talk of rehabilitation is meaningless.

Confident, well-trained and well-led prison staff in sufficient numbers can retake areas surrendered to a minority of prisoners who prey on others and destroy the chances of a rehabilitation culture taking root. It’s not just staff who are crying out for proper focus on this area – prisoners overwhelmingly want staff to be in charge too. Take note, Prime Minister: whatever the mandarins tell you, this is where your beleaguered front line need action, not words. If staff take back control of prisons, anything is possible. If you don’t have confidence in the corporate leadership of the prison service to deliver this priority, find some people who can.

We need modern prisons that are fundamentally safe, running busy, purposeful regimes that equip people sent to them by the courts to have a decent shot at a law abiding life after release. But we also need to ensure that victims generally feel that justice has been done and that prison sentences are honest and straightforward.

Boris Johnson is right to call for a review here. Successive layers of reform and tinkering have made it all but impossible for the public to understand the period of custody given out at the point of sentence. Eligibility for automatic release at the halfway point of most prison sentences has degraded public confidence in the system, particularly since those unconditionally released serving short sentences are subject to supervision in the community that is patchy at best.

Ending automatic or presumed release for prisoners is probably a good thing for public trust in the justice system. But there are two important consequences that need to be accepted and dealt with.

The current system is built on legislative iterations introduced, in part, to tackle overcrowding. If prisoners now serve their full sentence in custody, those 10,000 extra places supposed to increase capacity will fill up very quickly with the usual suspects.

It's also worth considering how important hope is to order and control in prisons as a practical as well as a moral good. If prisoners face extended time in custody with little incentive to behave or address their offending behaviour, this will end in even greater chaos than we have currently.

One solution could be the reintroduction of a very old concept – remission of sentence for good behaviour. Prisoners serving a fixed prison sentence who comply with their sentence plan, stay out of trouble and work on their offending behaviour should be rewarded with a proportionate reduction in their jail time. The carrot always works better than the stick. Conversely, those sentenced to custody who are violent or don’t take steps to change should serve every day of their sentence from a prison cell.

Finally, a word for the rather over-indulged prison reform industry, those cosy networked ranks of academics, activists and former bureaucrats who exist in and perpetuate an agreeable groupthink zone. Might you not bear some responsibility for this collapse in public trust in prisons too?

The complacent, dreary and patronising noises off from this sector have rarely changed in tone for the last 20 years – if only short sentences were abolished, prisons emptied and closed down and community justice flowered, all would be good. Victims rarely get more than a cursory nod in this narrative. Too often prison staff are caricatured as two dimensional functionaries with a penchant for brutality.

It’s no surprise that these people are largely silent on the culpability of poor corporate leadership for the mess we are in. Just like on the prison landings, you don’t dob your mates in. We need to start from a new perspective on making prisons work that is rooted in practicality, without pious abstractions and fashionable obsessions. There also needs to be a paradigm shift from prisoner advocacy to campaigning for good prisons.

If we have better prisons, we will end up with fewer people in them and fewer future victims. While we remain addicted to cheap custody and, unlike virtually any other country in Europe, our short sentences appear to be only good at making bad people worse, these reforms will be throwing good money after bad. They will fail to deliver for victims past and future.

We need to bang up violent people for a long time with their rights subordinate to the rights of communities terrorised by them. Violent crime must be made to be an extremely unpalatable career choice. We can pay for this approach by clearing prisons of people who shouldn’t be there in the first place. People who offend through acquisitive crime to feed drugs habits should be treated through the medical, not the criminal justice system. People who offend because they are mentally ill are similarly better off in secure facilities where their disorders can be treated in a clinical setting. This can also help halt the ghastly parade of body bags out of the prison gates filled with people who have given in to despair in conditions that are an affront to civilised values.

In the end, only three components are needed to kick start this long journey to successfully tackle crime and restore public safety – resources, leadership and will. If the Prime Minister combines all three and brings relentless focus on making prisons and prison staff safe first, hope and possibility will surely follow.