What the Conservative government will mean for crime, sentencing and prisonsPosted: May 13, 2015
What we know so far about the Tories’ justice plans
The appointment of Michael Gove to justice secretary is the biggest prisons story to emerge from the aftermath of the general election. His predecessor, Chris Grayling, has now been appointed leader of the Commons. Like Chris Grayling, Michael Gove has no background in law. Gove was demoted from education secretary to chief whip last year, after disagreements with trade unions and Theresa May. Now as head of the ministry of justice, Mr Gove will have to rebuild relationship with the home secretary.
More on Michael Gove’s appointment on Friday’s Prisons in the press round up. For now, here’s a breakdown of the fallout from the election.
Increasing custodial sentencing
The Conservatives are, predictably, continuing with their ‘tough on crime’ approach with plans to put more people in prison. They will increase sentence lengths for the most serious offences and introduce a new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals. This “short, sharp spell” in custody is designed to change behaviour of these offenders.
They will also extend scope of the Unduly Lenient Scheme. The scheme allows appeals against sentences that are perceived to be unduly lenient, allowing for more sentences to be challenged.
Building super prisons
With it looking likely more people will be punished with custodial sentences, Michael Gove is going to need somewhere to keep them. The Conservatives plan to “make further savings by closing old, inefficient prisons, building larger, modern and fit-for-purpose ones”.
Earlier this year prisons watchdog, Nick Hardwick, raised concerns about the government’s penchant for super-prisons. He warned that existing cases show that newly opened, large jails lead to “unacceptable risks” with “very poor” outcomes.
Tackling crime in prisons
They will introduce widespread random testing of drug use in jails, new body scanners, greater use of mobile phone blocking technology and a new strategy to tackle corruption in prisons.
Drugs do manage to find their way in and are, in reality, rarely drug-free zones. This can perpetuate crime and makes it harder for addicts to kick their habits. An alternative to random drug testing would be improving access to treatment programmes, and the ability of prisons to tailor programmes to individual’s needs.
It’s not yet clear whether new ‘extremism officers’ will be introduced. Theresa May included this idea in her wish list during her extremism speech in March, but it was missing from the manifesto.
Alternatives to prison for women?
The Conservative manifesto read:
“We will improve the treatment of women offenders, exploring how new technology may enable more women with young children to serve their sentence in the community.”
Further details are yet to materialise. But if and when they do, they are likely to please the many prison reform groups who have been campaigning for a different approach to custody for women.
In Janurary Simon Hughes, former Liberal Democrat MP and justice minister, called for the imprisonment of women to be reduced to half the current number. But Mr Hughes was not reelected last week and is no longer in the justice team.
Denying prisoners right to vote
The Conservatives will continue this policy for prisoners. In fact the Green party was the only one to pledge the right vote to prisoners in their manifesto.
Expanding payment by results
This is mentioned in manifesto but it’s unclear exactly how. In December David Cameron proposed prison governors should be rewarded for reductions in reoffending, so this could be one target.
In this sense it is perhaps surprising that Chris Grayling was moved from the justice secretary position as he was a key driver of payment by results in the Ministry of Justice and before that in the Department for Work and Pensions.
Scrapping the human rights act
One of Michael Gove’s first tasks will be repealing the Human Rights Act, which ratifies the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. The act will be replaced British Bill of Rights.
“This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK,” the manifesto reads.
If all goes ahead, the European Court of Human Rights will no longer be able to overrule judgments in British courts, making “the Supreme Court supreme”. Critics say it removes a layer of accountability, as Britain will no longer be beholden to Strasbourg.
Introducing the counter-extremism bill
The home secretary’s bill will include banning orders to outlaw groups that incite hatred or cause fear and Extremism Disruption Orders (EXDOs) to stop “disruptive” individuals from speaking in public or holding a position of authority.
The Charity Commission will be given more power to root out charities who misappropriate funds for extremism and terrorism. Ofcom will be able to take action against channels broadcasting extremist content.
It’s not yet clear whether these offences will carry custodial sentences. Listen to the home secretary define what extremism is on BBC radio 4’s Today programme.
A few vaguer promises on prisons…
Apart from what’s been mentioned already, there were a few other mentions of prisons in the Conservative manifesto, though thinner on detail. They were:
- Making sure that prisons are places of rehabilitation
- Continuing to review legal aid systems so they can continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way
- Completing the revolution in the way offenders are managed in the community, using the latest technology to keep criminals on the straight and narrow
- Becoming smarter when it comes to crime prevention, dealing with the drivers of crime such as drugs and alcohol. They promise to focus not only on punishment, but also on rehabilitating offenders and intervening early to prevent troubled young people being drawn into crime
- Introducing new technology to monitor offenders in the community and to bring persistent offenders to justice more quickly.
In other news
Aside from what’s going on in the Conservative ranks, here are a few titbits from elsewhere:
- Sadiq Khan is no longer shadow justice secretary – instead he is focusing on his candidacy for the London mayoral elections in 2016.
- Simon Hughes, former justice minister and Liberal Democrat MP for Old Bermondsey and Southwark was not reelcted. Hughes wanted to reduce the number of women in prison.
- Watch out for more analysis on what Michael Gove will mean for the Ministry of Justice on Friday’s weekly prisons in the press round-up.
- Andrew Selous remains prisons minister.