Both The Guardian and The Telegraph have publish approving articles on what seems to be a forward-looking approach to reducing the impracticably (possibly criminally) large prison population in the UK (thanks Michael Howard). Key to his proposals is to divert people who are clearly suffering from mental health difficulties (both temporary and long term) out of the criminal justice system as early as possible.
It is estimated that as many as 90% of the prison population has some kind of mental health problem. One in 10 prisoners is said to have schizophrenia, compared to one in a 100 in the wider population.
The conundrum is how to divert from police stations or magistrates courts in an environment where the justice system is facing its share of big cuts. Clarke’s answer – getting the Department of Health to pay – is a good one for him and for us all: it recognises the benefits in reduced costs and reduced crime that would follow from early intervention and diversion through to effective treatment. But where would people be diverted to? We need more details on how treatment in the community might work. The concern is that treatment centres don’t currently exist in any number, and ensuring that they are therapeutic environments with the right level of support to enable recovery will come with a high price tag.
Organisers have been waiting to see what hope Ken Clarke’s Green Paper on sentencing can offer them. Today, they will find out. Billed as a "rehabilitation revolution", the consultation document is described by one insider as "the start of a complete upheaval in criminal justice". Even so, the old Tory mantra that "prison works" may not have been dealt the killer blow that the Justice Secretary envisaged.
His paper was to have been placed before Parliament last week. The climate would not have been propitious, with public anger running high over the rearrest of Learco Chindamo, who killed headmaster Philip Lawrence. The greater obstacle was Downing Street’s unhappiness that the Coalition would be seen to be soft on crime.
And so, last week, Mr Clarke and David Cameron sat down at No 10 to thrash out a "redrafted" version. As one insider puts it: "The PM took an active and close interest." Mr Clarke has been encouraged to inject more "red meat" and "authoritarian measures" to appeal to the Tory Right, while retaining reforms that would be popular with the beleaguered Lib Dems.
The final version includes tough community sentences and, reportedly, moves to seize the property of fine defaulters, as well as promises to keep non-violent offenders, including drug addicts and mentally ill people, out of jail. Short sentences, which Mr Clarke once suggested would be scrapped, will stay.