Will David Cameron really back Michael Gove’s justice reforms?

Written by Tom Gash on 8 February 2016 in Opinion
The PM has previous when it comes to hanging justice secretaries out to dry after they have ran into trouble with the press.

Today, David Cameron is making a speech which has been heavily trailed in various newspapers. The prime minister is lending his support to the reforming justice secretary Michael Gove and, as when he made previous speeches supporting justice secretaries Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling, his focus is on reoffending.

Cameron is backing Gove’s idea that reoffending rates will fall if prison governors are given more freedom to experiment with new approaches to managing their inmates. The explicit argument is that if governors can reduce reoffending rates, there will fewer criminals in jail, and a lower bill for the taxpayer.

The implicit argument is that it is reasonably easy to reduce reoffending rates through technical tweaks, and (in the current fiscal climate) no more money. The problem of course is that the foundations of the Gove-Cameron argument are shaky.

Firstly, prison numbers have not historically been influenced by reoffending rates at all. Over the past twenty years the prison population rose rapidly even as crime fell – and reoffending rates have been broadly stable. Sentences are quite simply getting tougher.

The main changes have been the drift towards giving custodial sentences to those who would previously have been dealt with in the community or through fines, and longer sentences for those given prison terms. The growth in prison numbers is marked - and while the acceleration in prison numbers has slowed (see below), we have 354 more people in prison in the UK than this time last year, according to the Howard League.


The second myth being peddled is that reoffending rates are easy to reduce – and (given there is no extra money being announced) that they are easy to reduce without investment. Several reoffending programmes have been shown to work effectively. A review of US programmes by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy shows several interventions, including drug treatment programmes, intensive supervision of parolees, and various behaviour management courses can work – and that wraparound services tailored to individuals’ needs are most effective of all, when done well.

However, we know that success levels vary even for well-designed programmes and many programmes fail. If interventions are designed based on a good understanding of ‘what works’ and implemented soundly (we know who is helping offenders can matter as much as the process they go through), we might expect reductions in reoffending rates of around 5-10%. This is worthwhile but even a vast expansion of effective programmes would only make a small dent in prison numbers.

The pool of criminals is far larger than the numbers held in prison at any one time – and thousands of young men previously not in contact with justice services are being convicted each year. And we still have a poor understanding of ‘what works’ for some of the people in our prisons.

What’s more, if every prisoner was given an intervention costing £3,000 (which is in fact, far less than most effective interventions cost) the upfront cost for the Ministry of Justice would be around £250 million, or nearly half the total probation service budget.

This spending that might save money in the long run but won’t do anything to solve Mr Gove’s current budget crisis. ‘Payment by results’ was meant to overcome this problem by encouraging new probation service providers (Community Rehabilitation Companies) to invest upfront funds and then claim their cash once results were achieved and the Ministry of Justice had banked the savings from a reduced prison population. But these reforms, spearheaded by Clarke and Grayling, did not produce the desired investment – at least judging by recent inspection assessments.

Mr Gove’s emphasis on liberating prison governors to reduce reoffending is therefore interesting – but in many ways tangential to his central question of how to save money on prison. And it is very hard to see the justice secretary hitting the chancellor’s spending targets without taking on prison numbers more directly through sentencing reform. It remains to be seen what Gove is prepared to do on this - but it is important to note Cameron has his own priors when it comes to hanging justice secretaries out to dry when they run into trouble with the press, large sections of which continue to oppose a more liberal penal policy.

When Ken Clarke introduced sentencing reforms but bungled a media interview and tried to make distinctions between ‘different types of rape’, he was swiftly dumped as justice secretary and his policies to reduce prison numbers were largely reversed.

One change – the scrapping of Indefinite Public Protection sentences – survived and many believe that this is one reason why the prison population is now stable rather than rising rapidly.

It is easy to advocate effective rehabilitation, but harder to pay for it. And much harder still to introduce the sentencing reforms that would genuinely reduce the cost of the justice system.



Tom Gash is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economic’s Mannheim Centre for Criminology and a former crime adviser in the Number 10 Strategy Unit. His book Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things is published by Penguin, Allen Lane in May.


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