The name ‘Ken Clarke’ and the word ‘sacking’ are inseparable to
the chattering classes at the moment, but so was it ever thus. There are signs though that the normally insouciant Clarke has been shaken on this occasion. He has given an interview in defence of
his contentious prison reforms to the Times this morning (£). In a clear message to concerned voters, Tory
backbenchers and sceptical government colleagues, he denies that he is ‘soft on crime’. For example, he will tighten community sentences:
“I want them to be more punitive, effective and organised. Unpaid work should require offenders to work at a proper pace in a disciplined manner rather than youths just hanging around
doing odd bits tidying up derelict sites.”
Clarke’s talk is political rather than practical and the substance of his reforms remains uncorrupted. And his old combative doggedness is lithe: he insists that he has “never said
anything on crime and punishment which is not the collective policy of the entire Government from top to bottom.”
The interview may allay some of the concern, which has become more vocal since the release of a poll (£) that suggests the
public are vehemently opposed to lenient sentencing.
However, Clarke needs to do more than play to Westminster; there are major concerns elsewhere. Criminal barristers and solicitor advocates worry that further sentence discounting (especially at the
point of arrest or charge in a police station) will encourage false confessions, which will end up costing the taxpayer more in court time and appeals when the prisoner comes to his senses. In a
separate instance, the Council for Circuit Judges pointed out (£) that more relaxed sentencing for criminal activity and
fewer and shorter trials is likely to increase the use of fixed penalty notices and other cautions by the ‘extra judicial arm of the criminal justice system’, which means the police and
crown prosecution service. The council added that reoffending would explode in such circumstances. Finally, academic criminologists have severe reservations about reducing sentence terms, arguing that substantive evidence indicates that re-offending will
increase at great cost to society. As Clarke’s argument is predicated on ensuring value for money, he needs to confront these policy issues.