ACROSS the country, Conservative candidates promised in election manifestos that we would be tough on crime, increase the prison population to 96,000 by 2014 and that "anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence."
Ken Clarke, Justice Secretary in the coalition Government, has abandoned these pledges and adopted the Liberal-left wing orthodoxies that society will be better served by letting more criminals walk the streets and that the offender is more important than the victim.
However, the Government is a million miles away from public opinion on this issue. Indeed, an IPSOS Mori poll in 2007 found that only nine per cent of people thought that "too much re-offending" was one of the most important crime-related issues.
This is not to say that while in prison we should not try to rehabilitate criminals, but why does the "rehabilitation revolution" have to occur in the community? For far too long we have had a sterile debate based on whether you are in favour of prison or rehabilitation – why not have rehabilitation while in prison?
Another central tenet of the coalition's proposals is the desire to reduce the number of people in prison by 3,000, cutting the number of short-term custodial sentences and increasing the number of community sentences. This is based on a myth that too many people are currently sent to prison when, in fact, Britain only has 12 people sent to prison for every 1,000 recorded crimes, compared with 33 in Ireland and 48 in Spain. The Government's policy is also based on a premise that it is relatively easy to be sent to prison – again quite the reverse.
In 2009, 2,980 burglars and 4,677 violent criminals with 15 or more previous convictions, were still not sent to prison.
It even seems that the Justice Secretary himself disagrees with his own policy. At the Prison Governors Association conference this year he said: "I join all the criticisms of mad target cultures across the entire public service."
Behind his misguided approach is a belief that community sentences are more cost-effective and successful at reducing re-offending. In fact, a Home Office survey in 2000 asked offenders who were about to start a prison sentence how many crimes they had committed in the previous year. The average was 140 (257 for those on drugs) at a typical cost of 2,000 each. That works out at 280,000 a year per criminal (in comparison to Clarke's estimated 38,000 a year per prison place).
The myth that community sentences reduce re-offending has been dispelled by the Ministry of Justice's own statistics. In 2008 offenders who had completed a community sentence committed 250,000 crimes in the 21 months following release, 1,500 of which were serious offences including murder, rape and robbery.
Ken Clarke attempted to reform the criminal justice system previously when he was Home Secretary. In 1992 the number of recorded offences was 5,592,000, more than 12 times the total in 1950. Under Michael Howard's "prison works" regime, sentences were tougher and for the first time since the end of the Second World War the crime rate began to fall significantly.
The bottom line is that prison can work. I agree with Ken Clarke about the importance of a work ethic in prisons. More could be done to incentivise prisoners; electricity to cells could be switched off during the working day so they cannot lounge about watching television, automatic release halfway through sentences could be replaced with the Danish system of earning parole.
The Conservative Party has always been the party of law and order. Ken Clarke is in danger of single-handedly losing us this reputation, but even more importantly he risks making thousands more people the victims of crime.