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January 28, 2016

Can Gove change the prison debate single handed?

“It is because I am a Conservative that I believe in the rule of law as the foundation stone of our civilisation; it is because I am a Conservative that I believe that evil must be punished; but it is also because I am a Conservative, and a Christian, that I believe in redemption, and I think that the purpose of our prison system and our criminal law is to keep people safe by making people better”.

This was Michael Gove’s riposte to MP Philip Davies’ accusation that he had “gone native”.  The Lord Chancellor’s words are music to the ears of penal reformers and mark a sea-change from the rhetoric of Chris Grayling,and Jack Straw. But unfortunately Philip Davies echoes the views of many ordinary people in believing that the criminal justice system is too soft on criminals.  Nearly half the population would like to bring back the death penalty, 70% think sentences are too soft, and over half think prison is an effective deterrent.  These are deep rooted feelings, which one Lord Chancellor will find it hard to uproot.

There are also messages from other bits of government which reinforce the Philip Davies view.  This week the Sentencing Council brought out new guidelines on how judges should deal with robbery.  Nearly all the headlines suggested tougher sentences for street robbers.  In fact the guidelines are not designed to increase sentences.  The same day it was reported that the information commissioner felt staff who sell stolen data “must face jail”.  A couple of weeks ago, the Attorney General’s office publicised that the number of appeals against “unduly lenient sentences” were going up. All these articles reinforce the public’s view that sentences need to be harsher, and that prison works.

Mood music matters.  Government voices (as translated by the media) weekly reinforce people’s deeply held belief that long prison sentences are the best remedy for crime.  Cumulatively, they undermine Gove’s message of redemption, and hamper efforts to reduce prison numbers.   If the government is to persuade the Philip Davies’ of this world of a new penal direction, they need also to persuade every tentacle of government to be super careful in the words they use.