Let me say something you would expect a Conservative to say. If some one is guilty of a crime of violence they should be put in prison. Prison is there to protect the public from future violence, to act as a deterrent to others and to punish the criminal.
Let me now say two things you might not expect a Conservative to say. Prison does not work very well. We send too many people to prison.
I was pleased this week to read the Conservative document looking at how the rate of re-offending might be brought down, and how a future government would want to reduce the rate of increase in the number of prisoners. The government is now suggesting there could be a further growth of a quarter in the prison population by 2020, taking it to 100,000. The Conservatives would like to get it below that for the best of reasons â€“ by reducing the amount of serious crime.
The truth is that half of all crime is committed by previous offenders. All too many people in prison are sad or mad â€“ the simply bad are often in the minority. There is a high prevalence of people who cannot read and write to an employable standard, people who are on drugs or heavy drink, people who have disturbed personalities and find adjustment to civil society difficult or impossible. Conservatives propose much more emphasis on rehabilitation, working to get people off drugs in prison rather than allowing prisons to be places where more pick up the habit; working to teach the prisoners skills they need to hold down a job and run a more normal life out of prison. The prison and Rehabilitation Trusts would get more funding if they succeeded in returning prisoners to civilian life without re-offending.
It is worrying that all too many prisoners leave prison with no home to go to, and with no great help to find a place to live or a job to pay the rent. To some prison is the least bad option, providing heating and meals each day. Others leave still with a drug or drink habit, making it impossible for them to hold a job and with an expensive habit they have to feed. They are bound to offend again and likely to be caught again.
I am all for trying new ways of rehabilitation. I also like the idea of a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence for each prisoner, laid down by the court, where the prisoner has to earn the shorter sentence by demonstrating that he will be able to fend for himself legally when he leaves as well as showing good behaviour inside.
I also think we should look at other ways of reducing the prison population. More than 10,000 out of the 80,000 in our prisons at any given time are foreigners. We should have a policy of returning many more offenders to their home country when they have been found guilty. Both parties are now looking at this for the minority that come from non EU countries. Surely we should do the same for the majority who come from EU nations? I was never happy about the loss of partial control of our borders that this government signed up to. Isnâ€™t it time to renegotiate this item , or to put in place arrangements which allow us to cut this unwelcome pressure on our prisons?
Maybe we should also look at the question of financial crimes that do not involve violence or the threat of violence against people. I have no wish to create a class divide: violent rich people should have to suffer prison like violent poor people, but maybe both poor and rich thieves, whether thieving by stealing a car or getting up to something illegal in accounts should on a first offence have financial penalties. Why not make them pay financial compensation to their victims, strip them of the profits of crime, and make them pay the police and court costs? As someone who was burgled years ago before I put in proper security I would have liked the criminal to have been found and to have bought me new replacements of what I had lost. I did not feel it essential to send him to prison. In practise, I was not told he was ever found so probably nothing happened. Thieves are clearly motivated by the wish to have more money or better things, so a financial punishment would suit the crime. Putting a petty car or TV thief in prison may turn him to a life of crime, as it will prevent or break his links with the world of work and family that provide some stability to most peopleâ€™s lives.
I would be interested in your thoughts about prison. No-one looking at the big increase in numbers, and the poor record on re-offending can be happy with the current position. It is time for some new thinking.