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Monday 4 February 2013

Sending a message: Huhne, Grayling, and the rehabilitation revolution

One of many promises the coalition Government hasn’t delivered on is the so-called ‘rehabilitation revolution’: the long overdue systemic reform of our outdated, overcrowded, expensive, ever failing penal justice system.  It was always going to be a hard ask. Particularly given the Conservatives have ‘previous history’. Just remember Michael Howard and Anne Widdecombe.  But events over the last few days have taken an even more comical and depressing turn.

For starters, we have Chris Huhne. The Lib Dems, clearly learning from their coalition partners, have produced the next high profile politician ready to be imprisoned for perverting the course of justice. Huhne follows in the careful footsteps of hubris laid down by Jonathan Aitken and Geoffrey Archer. Though it’s unlikely Huhne is going to be in prison for long, the costs of his imprisonment are significant.  By the time of his sentencing, it will have cost around £65,000 to imprison him, taking into account the police, court and other expenses. Then there is at least a further £40,000 for each year of incarceration.  Huhne is a millionaire. A final sum of around 100k would be fairly small fry. But of course, it won’t be Huhne who is paying. We are. The taxpayer will cough up around £100,000 for a politician from a Government that based its standards on deficit reduction.  That isn’t just ironic, it is bitterly symbolic. For it is the Government’s behaviour – both as individuals, and through their policies – that is responsible for what we are all paying for now.

Before Chris Huhne packs his overnight bag for sentencing, he would do well to digest Chris Grayling’s comments from the Mail on Sunday’s ‘I smacked my children when they were badly behaved’.  It’s a headline that might interest David Cameron too, given recent grumblings inside the Conservative party. Grayling, though, is the Minister for Justice.  He is tasked with overseeing the institution Huhne is about to incarnated in, and – one hopes - for the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that promises to reform the way it (doesn’t) work.  If Huhne’s past behaviour reflects badly for a former minister of climate change (I imagine most people who care about climate change don’t speed, let along lie about it), then Grayling’s behaviour as a child smacker doesn’t exactly suggest that ‘rehabilitation’ is anywhere near the top of the Government’s agenda for justice.  

In the Mail on Sunday article, Grayling suggests that he ‘smacked’ his children to ‘send a message’.  As @bberrybeth365 responded on twitter, ‘That message is the parent has lost control, their temper, and the plot!’ For Grayling and many others in the Conservative party, it is a message of deterrent that they believe is equally applied to the importance of prison.  Smacking a child might make a parent feel they are sending a message about discipline and boundaries, but the experience of being smacked is altogether more complex and sometimes deeply damaging.  Given high re-offending rates in prison, one has to wonder if ‘the message’ is of less significance than the actual impact of ‘the experience’ on a person.   If you look at criminal justice statistics from 2012, they  show that nearly a third of defendants convicted of serious offences had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions.  

Grayling goes on to clarify, in typical Daily Mail language, his belief that prisons should be ‘spartan but humane, a place people don’t particularly want to come back to’. Tellingly, there is no reference to rehabilitation here. Prison is a place lacking meaningful support for individuals to develop what they need to live healthy, sustainable, crime-free lives in society. This is not just a question of being humane; it’s an imperative part of prison as a process that is meant to rehabilitate as well as punish.  Most people who ‘go back’ to prison don’t do so because they didn’t get the message; they do so because they didn’t get any help to change.  For £40,000 a year, we should expect a lot more.

Dostoevsky wrote that ‘the degree of civilisation in society can be judged by entering its prisons’. Looking at the Minister for Justice smacking his children, and an ex minister about to be imprisoned for perverting the course of justice, one is left with the sickening feeling that our society lacks proper leadership.  Maybe that is the real ‘message’ that Grayling and Huhne are sending out to us. It’s time we listened, learned, and rehabilitated ourselves.

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