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Right on crime – is it only possible for conservatives to do penal reform?

Penelope Gibbs
06 Dec 2014

Danny Kruger presented a great programme for BBC Radio 4 on “Right on Crime”, the US penal reform effort led by Republicans.  It is a fascinating story.  It was not clear how it started, but key Republicans in USA decided mass incarceration needed to be reversed, mainly for financial reasons. They have invested in community programmes and “speciality courts” such as the drug courts I visited on my Churchill Fellowship to the States, so nothing new, just a new direction of travel and a new rhetoric.  The really interesting aspect is the slant of the politics.  In England and Wales, penal reform had a mini heyday under Margaret Thatcher.  People were so impressed by her punitive rhetoric, they did not realise ministers like Douglas Herd were bringing prison numbers down.  In contrast, Tony Blair said he would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime but ended up only doing the former.  The Republicans in USA say only those on the right can do penal reform since those on the left are too vulnerable to being seen as soft on crime.  I don’t entirely agree.  A confident left can bring in penal reform, as they have done in Scotland, but I can see that it helps to be seen as generally tough.  I just hope that all parties going into the next UK election see that penal reform can be done, even in one of the most punitive countries in the Western World.