Monday, July 19, 2010

Turning Tides

There are moments in time which are filled with a vibrant potential, where glimpses of a different future break through the dismal fog of the present.

We are in such a moment. A combination of financial crisis coupled with new thinking (the two may be connected...) has seen powerful shifts in the policy debate. We have a Justice Minister who takes a cynically realistic view of the utility of prisons. We have a Chief Inspector of Probation suggesting that there is a balance to be struck between the impact of crime and the cost of preventing it. And now, whisper it if you dare, the Ministry is said to be turning a sunny countenance onto the idea of abolishing the mandatory life sentence.

These ideas have all been bubbling away, with varying amounts of noise, for many years. The House of Lords has been trying to get shot of the mandatory life sentence for years, and the place of imprisonment in the national psyche is a perpetual bugbear for those few of us who give it any thought.

But having these ideas originate, or at least receive tacit support, from within the policy-making circle is a startling new development. I don't much care if this shift originates in Damascene conversions or a depressing glance at the national cheque book, that these ideas are allowed to wander into the daylight is in itself remarkable.

Change is in the wind. I can only hope that a genuine debate does ferment outside of the politicians and vested interests. If change is to stick, a broad social consensus is crucial. All prisoners can do is sit back, wait and hope.

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