Tuesday, 15 February 2011 14:36
FRFI 219 February / March 2011
Following much speculation about the new government’s promises to reduce the prison population and ‘reform’ the criminal justice system, on 7 December 2010 ConDem Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke published a Green Paper entitled Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders.* Firmer plans for legislation will be published in May 2011. NICKI JAMESON reports.
Clarke’s previously much-publicised plan to abolish short prison sentences is now off the political agenda. However, the government does plan to curtail pre-trial imprisonment for prisoners who are unlikely ultimately to receive custodial sentences and to improve the lot of prisoners who, following release, are recalled to prison for minor violations and who often ‘remain in custody until the expiry of their sentence for no good reason, with a detrimental effect on their rehabilitation’. There is also a suggestion that pleading guilty at the first opportunity will attract a 50% reduction in sentence.
In the longer term the government says it will simplify the whole sentencing framework, repeal unimplemented legislation (such as Labour’s ridiculous ‘weekend custody’ scheme) and amend the framework for mandatory life sentences for murder, to provide judges with greater discretion to set minimum terms, although there is ‘no intention of abolishing the mandatory life sentence or of prompting any general reduction in minimum terms imposed for murder’.
In the short term there are a few significant suggestions in relation to the Labour government’s invidious Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). The IPP system, whereby any violent or sex offence, no matter how minor, could result in what was effectively a life sentence, came into force in 2005. Some modifications were made in 2008, but prisons remain full of people whose IPP tariff has long passed, but cannot be released until the Parole Board decides they are no longer ‘dangerous’. Clarke’s proposed changes are:
• Restriction of IPPs to those whose conviction would in the past have attracted a determinate sentence of ten years or more (from which they would be eligible for parole after five years). This means that the shortest IPP tariff will be five years. There is no mention of this being retrospectively applied, so is unlikely to affect anyone already in prison.
• Changed release criteria, so that only those ‘who clearly pose a very serious risk of future harm’ are detained beyond their tariff periods.
• Deportation of non-British IPP prisoners as soon as their tariffs expire.
Other plans to reduce the prison population whilst remaining ‘tough on crime’ include plans to replace prison sentences for foreign nationals convicted of some crimes with ‘conditional cautions’, including the proviso they leave the country, and to introduce a punishment of ‘asset seizure’ whereby cars and other goods will be taken from those who are ‘cash poor but still possess a certain level of assets’. The Paper also restates government support for the EU framework decision on prisoner transfer, due to come into force in December 2011, whereby most EU nationals will serve their sentences in their home country.
Clarke promises to introduce ‘working prisons’ where prisoners work up to 40 hours a week, and implement the Prisoners’ Earnings Act, which was passed in 1996 but not brought into force. The Act allows for prisoners’ pay to be subject to a variety of deductions and levies, including tax, national insurance, court order payments, child maintenance and enforced donations to ‘crime prevention’ organisations. The government plans to commence deductions in September 2011 and considers that this will generate £1 million per year for victim support organisations.
Although the government says that it will apply the principle that ‘the work proposed does not represent unfair competition and that it does not reduce the number of jobs available for law-abiding citizens’, it is committed to making it easier for ‘independent providers’ (ie private companies) to get ‘involved in prison industry [and] to work in partnership with prisons to provide work and training in ways which do not add overall cost’. As there is no promise to pay prisoners the minimum wage, it is hard to see how the claim not to compete unfairly with workers outside squares with the plan to exploit prison labour at minimal cost.
It is not only private companies which are encouraged to make money from imprisonment. Clarke also envisages ‘payment by results’ rehabilitation schemes run by charities and NGOs. How exactly these will function, if at all, is anybody’s guess.
Cutting the prison budget?
Behind all these plans there lies a conundrum that the government is powerless to resolve. On the one hand, the relentless drive to cut public spending means that there is less money available for the machinery of punishment. On the other hand, the very same programme of cuts will viciously attack the working class and the resultant desperation and resistance mean that the government cannot realistically allow itself to reduce the prison population. Indeed, there is every possibility that, instead of falling, the number of people behind bars could actually increase.
*The full document is available online at