Headlines about the government performing a U-turn on reduced sentences for offenders who plead guilty early risk distracting attention from the hole in the budget that has just been created by the move. It is a policy that throws up more questions than it answers, some of which are:
1) Where will the extra £130m come from? Government sources suggest it will be from probation and courts services. But where, and what effect will this have? Clarke was pretty vague in the Commons:
The savings are not coming from any particular area. We are achieving more efficiency. Half is coming from administrative costs. If there are any new policies I will come forward with them.
If half are coming through administrative costs, where is the other half coming from?
2) Why the U-turn? Both Cameron and Clarke have said the policy reversal happened because of evidence from senior judges that the original policy of 50 per cent discounts for early pleas would have meant unsuitably short sentences for serious or violent criminals. More than that, Number 10 said there is evidence that it wouldn’t have encouraged offenders to plead guilty early, and could only have made savings from having fewer people in prison – which was not the point of the policy. Was this evidence so new and so stunning that it forced the reversal? Or was it pressure from the public and the press?
3) How do cuts to probation services tally with the stated aim of cutting reoffending? Surely less money for probation officers will make it more difficult for them to do their job of making sure ex-convicts don’t end up in jail again. Or, if there were savings that could always have been made in their budget with little or no effect, why weren’t these proposed before?
Labour, by the way, is not much more coherent on these points. Ed Miliband, wanting to appear tough on crime, said the sentencing U-turn was the right decision. But when confronted with the reality that this will mean less money elsewhere, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, protested:
We were promised a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ but instead this bill will deliver cuts to the probation services, cuts to youth offending teams and cuts to the prison service that works to reform offenders. Asking those services that deliver rehabilitation and protection of the public to bear the brunt of the cuts to the justice system at the same time as keeping more offenders in the community is simply irresponsible.
And still we are no clearer on where Labour would have found the savings for its own proposals to halve the deficit?