Ian Birrell, a former speechwriter for David Cameron, has defended the notion that we should hug a hoodie. This softly-softly approach is far preferable to the legislative diarrhoea of a New Labour administration that was ‘so contemptuous of civil liberties’, he says. Similarly we should welcome the approach of the rather likeable if gaff-prone Kenneth Clarke after the ‘prison works’ – er, no it doesn’t – line pursued by former home secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard. Regardless of how hard line successive governments have claimed to be the prison population, says Birrell, has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, and re-offending rates are as high as ever.
But is the opening of the prison gates much of an alternative? It seems obvious that to do so can’t help but ‘work’ in as far as it reduces prison numbers. But is it really the case that ‘community punishments, restorative justice and rehabilitation’ are any more just than incarceration as Birrell claims? It seems to me that this question will remain unanswered for as long as the in/out debate is more concerned with reducing public spending than the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system.
Either way, his concern that Cameron is now reverting to Old Tory type is misplaced. According to The Guardian the prime minister proposes ‘giving courts the power to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, passports and driving licences … [and] to electronically tag offenders and prevent them from leaving home for most of the day’. But far from being a throwback to less cuddly times this only confirms the illiberalism of the supposedly liberal non-custodial alternative to locking criminals up.
The reality is that the government and its supposedly ‘progressive’ opponents are turning society into an open prison. This not only blurs the line between the inside and the outside, but implies that none of us are properly free. It would be a far more just and liberal approach to insist that criminals ‘do their time’.