Ken Clarke has laid
against prison. There is no link, he alleges, between falling crime rates and spiralling prisoner numbers. Well, perhaps not, but it’s quite a coincidence. Clarke has been tasked with the
impossible: assuring an easily frightened public that releasing prisoners will not lead to more muggings, robberies and intimidation.
There are arguments on both sides. A recent Spectator editorial took the Michael Howard line that prison works
and crime costs. The opposition does not contest either of those propositions, just if prison alone is the best way to reduce crime. The outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, argues
in the Guardian for investment in remedial programmes. She concedes, not for the first
time, that funding prisoner education, mental health schemes and resettlement work never matched the 27 percent rise in prison numbers over the course of her tenure.
Small wonder that re-offending remains a perpetual blight. Prison programmes are an easy target for cuts, but it is vital that prisoners continue to have the opportunity to escape their
circumstances, just as minor and first time offenders must not fall under the aegis of serious or habitual criminals. Owers believes that national penury will curtail a prisons
policy where progress is defined exclusively by increasing the number of villains under lock and key. Faced with very substantial cuts to the Justice Department’s £10bn budget,
maintaining Britain’s 85,000 prison places is unrealistic. Remedial programmes and a sentencing review are welcome. Prison works, but not as well as it might.