New research reveals a public that is more open to reform than those who claim to speak for them.
The prospect of a new crime and justice bill, heralded by last week’s Queen’s speech, is likely to re-awaken debate around the coalition’s sentencing policy. While its latest proposals around community sentences are still at the consultation stage, the bill is another step in the coalition’s programme of cutting costs and increasing transparency in the justice system.
The community punishment reforms in the consultation, and those in this week’s speech, are much more cautious however, than those that Ken Clarke had in mind when he took office in 2010. The much vaunted rehabilitation revolution has crumbled under heavy fire, most of it from his own side. Tabloids and Tory back-benchers lambasted his plans as soft on crime and out-of-touch with public opinion.
One of the key attacks was made by Tory peer, former deputy party chairman and part-time citizen of Belize Lord Ashcroft. In a 2011 pamphlet entitled Crime, Punishment and the People Ashcroft argued that increased use of community sentences ‘command woefully little support’ amongst the public. A stark opinion poll outlined the public’s verdict – 81% thought that sentencing was too lenient, while only 3% thought it too harsh.
The argument, then, was clear: the British public demand tougher sentences and to ignore them was both politically inept and undemocratic. But a more sophisticated investigation of public opinion casts doubt on this analysis. Researchers from Oxford University and London’s Institute of Crime Policy Research investigated the way in which the public made their judgements about sentencing. They found that when asked to consider a range of mitigating circumstances, respondents would often consider a community sentence even for a crime which in the real world would almost always result in custody. When given the hypothetical case of a person convicted of a serious assault, 69% of respondents thought a community penalty would be appropriate if it was a first offense, 65% if the offender was caring for small children, and 64% if the offender was remorseful and apologised.
While the hangers and floggers in parliament or Fleet Street may whip up a storm about any proposal which seeks to reverse or even slow the unsustainable increase in our prison population, this research suggests that the public are more open to reform than those who claim to speak for them. The obstacle for reformers then, is not one of public sentiment but rather of bandwidth. If they can overcome the myths around crime and sentencing and engage the public in a serious debate about who really needs to be in prison, they may find more traction than they expect.