Could Michael Gove become a liberal hero by reforming prisons?

Published by The Guardian (20th May, 2015)

The appointment of Michael Gove as justice secretary was among the more interesting appointments in David Cameron’s first all-Conservative cabinet. Attention has focused on his brief to scrap the Human Rights Act, which some suspect was a Conservative manifesto sop for the right to be negotiated away in coalition deals. Certainly this questionable move will require the spending of huge chunks of political capital by the controversial former education secretary and chief whip. But could it be as a prison reformer that Gove really leaves his mark, making transformative change to the country by reversing two decades of dismally flawed policies?

This may sound unlikely, especially given the revelation that our new justice secretary once wrote an article defending the death penalty. Yet in the United States, prison reform has been led in recent years by conservatives, who have unleashed a revolution by cutting crime along with the huge costs of incarceration. This shift began in Texas, a place that has long prided itself for its toughness towards offenders, then spread to more than two dozen other states. Now there is rare political unity over the absurdity of locking up minor miscreants.

The Right on Crime movement started when Texas realised it could no longer afford to keep building prisons to lock up rising numbers of people, especially when so many rapidly reoffended. Hardline Republicans suddenly realised prisons had become profligate symbols of state failure and, to the delight of experts and liberals, shifted resources into tackling underlying causes of crime such as addiction, chaotic backgrounds, inadequate education and mental health issues. As one Texan involved told me, it is far tougher to sort out such deep-rooted problems than simply throw people in jail.

They talk in terms of saving money and protecting victims, not sympathy for offenders. But the introduction of data-driven policies in 2007, backed by evidence-based probation and easing punishments for parole breaches, instantly proved a success. Texas now puts 12% fewer people behind bars, and has been rewarded with crime rates plunging faster than the national average at 21%, and closure of three prisons. One recent study revealed that cutting numbers of jailed juvenile offenders by two-thirds had coincided with a cut in youth crime rates of one-third – dramatic figures, especially when combined with less recidivism and lower spending since rehabilitation costs much less than locking people up.

Little wonder so many other states – often deep red such as Georgia, South Carolina and Utah – followed suit as the cause was championed by conservatives from Newt Gingrich to Jeb Bush. Now Gove has told allies he is interested in these extraordinary events, even using similar language about people making bad choices as a result of circumstances rather than inherent criminality.

The US infamously has the world’s highest imprisonment rates – but for once, it would make sense to follow an American lead on penal policies. England and Wales have the highest rate in western Europe, with 85,590 inmates at the last count. Each prisoner costs the state about £45,000 a year – yet almost two-thirds of those sentenced to less than 12 months reoffend again, most within a year of release since their social issues are often left unaddressed. Core problems such as substance abuse, family breakdown and unemployment can often worsen in jail.

Gove should be as angered by this failing prison system as he was by failing schools; even his new department knows non-custodial sentences are more effective than a short spell inside from its own studies. So could he be the person to shatter a stale consensus that endures from fear of seeming soft? He is, after all, a darling of the right whose support was strengthened by his dismissal from education. He is a politician who relishes a fight and is unafraid of big ideas. And he is a man determined to reshape Britain, driven by his own background and – as the education establishment can confirm – unafraid to challenge vested interests.

Politics is a strange game. But is it possible Gove, a restless reformer unjustly loathed on the left, might become an unlikely liberal hero by pointing out the glaring contradictions for conservatives to be supporting perhaps the most grotesque state failure of them all?

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