Prison reform is a classic conservative issue

Published by The Spectator Coffee House (12th October, 2015)

Many people were surprised when David Cameron placed prison reform at the heart of his party conference speech last week. His passionate words on the subject of state failure when it comes to incarceration put the issue firmly at the heart of his reawakened vision of compassionate conservatism. It is now at the core of the Conservative party’s bid to seize the centre ground after Labour’s refusal to accept the verdict of the voters. 

Hopefully this marks a significant moment, when the debate on crime and punishment shifts from the ‘sterile lock em up’ stance to a more rational and evidence-based approach focused on stopping people from reoffending. Bear in mind that half of inmates reoffend within a year of the prison gates closing behind them, so clearly the idea that prison works is an absurdity. Obviously there are people that need to be locked up for a long time. But many other prisoners are inadequates or victims themselves. The failure to sort their problems such as drug addiction, mental health issues or poor education while behind bars is one of most glaring examples of state failure. 

For years the Tories have been trapped on this issue, whether waving handcuffs at party conferences or refusing to show any sympathy for offenders, regardless of their broken backgrounds or mental demons. Yet in the United States, which locks up one-quarter of the world’s prison population, there has been a similar shift led by the right that has transformed the criminal justice debate. They have realised prison reform is a conservative issue – whether you are a libertarian sceptical about the state, a fiscal conservative concerned about public spending or a religious believer with faith in redemption.

This began with ultra-conservatives in ‘hang em high’ Texas. They still lock up ridiculous numbers, yet kickstarted a shift away from imprisonment towards evidence-based rehabilitation and probation. Just as in Britain, the backdrop to the reforms was falling crime and concerns about spending. The move began in 2007 when they realised they needed to spend another $2bn building yet more prisons, since when they have cut incarceration rates from 678 people per 100,000 to 588 per 100,000 today. Even more dramatically, nine of the 14 young offender units have been closed. This has been accompanied by the growth of specialist courts for substance abuse, domestic violence, juveniles, woman and veterans, alongside other innovative schemes to reduce recidivism. 

I have just returned from making a Panorama documentary about this, which is screened tonight. For part of the trip I was accompanied by justice secretary Michael Gove, and together we went to an extraordinary drug court in Dallas, to a young offender’s institution in central Texas and we met reformed gangsters and drug addicts. It was fascinating to see how far the language of conservatives in America has moved away from the tired old emphasis on punishment – as well as to see how moved Mr Gove was when he talked to a teenage killer and by the tales of redemption. It provides an interesting backdrop to the reawakened criminal justice debate in Britain. 

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