Cameron fuses a new approach to solving our penal system conundrum.

It seems to be one of the questions which countless politicians have failed to answer: Do we bang ‘em up or set them free?

This age-old debate has the distinct advantage of exposing a person’s political leanings; left-wingers will advocate rehabilitation and wishy-washy measures designed to nurture the criminally-minded and develop them into sanitised members of ordinary society. Those on the right will harp on endlessly about how ‘prison works’ and that we should bang ‘em up and throw away the key. It depends what newspaper you read but the general consensus regarding the prisons issue of one of complete polarisation between left and right. If we take a look at the recidivism rates in this country, and ones with a similar penal system, we should by now have realised that a new focus is required. Our prisons don’t do what we want them to do.

David Cameron’s speech to the Centre for Social Justice this week outlined a new(er) approach to tackle the longstanding problems within our burgeoning prison system and the societal failings that incubate future prison populations.

Interestingly, Cameron took a refreshingly different approach to the tiresome didactic of rehabilitation or punishment. Rather than champion one way or the other, Cameron provided a merging of rhetoric; rehabilitation and punishment can go hand-in-hand.

Careful to not repeat the ‘Hug a Hoody’ mantra which stuck to him like Agent Orange, Cameron chose to reject both the left and right’s misinterpretations of that infamous misquote: ‘For many people, I am associated with those three words, two of which begin with ‘h’ and one of which is hoodie… even though I never actually said it.’

What Cameron needed to determine in this speech was where he stood. Was he tough on crime or a subscriber to the cotton-wool- liberal approach of citing the nurture versus nature debate? Are we going to lambast the criminal or blame wider society’s failings? He took the best route directly down the middle: he did neither.

‘In no other debate do the issues get polarised like this… with the crime debate, people seem to want it black or white, ‘lock ’em up’ or ‘let ’em out’, blame the criminal or blame society, ‘be tough’ or ‘act soft’.’

Instead of choosing either side, Cameron addressed the need for neither blame solely placed upon the individual or that of society. Personal responsibility accepted by the criminal and the need for ameliorating broken community environments from which most of our prisoners originate will be key to this new approach. Echoing the Blair years, Cameron said that this government needed to ‘think hard about dealing with the causes of crime’ and not just the symptoms.

Private firms and charities will be instrumental in providing rehabilitation and ensuring that newly released prisoners have the best chance of avoiding a recall to prison. The payment-by-results initiative will see such firms and charities concentrate on what does work because they’ll only get paid when results are evident. This system will also be extended to all newly released prisoners and not just those incarcerated for over one year. The introduction of the payment-by-results motive is a smart way of ensuring that organisations tasked with rehabilitation do their utmost to gather results. With the recidivism rate in this country at such hopeless levels, Cameron hopes the market mechanism can finally garner some worthy results.

Many who were disappointed at Ken Clarke’s outward shuffle feared a damaging shift to the right when his replacement, Chris Grayling, was announced as Justice Secretary. Clarke’s work in providing a clear theme of rehabilitation did not sit pretty with those on the right of the Conservative party, who prefer the traditional bang ‘em up approach, but Clarke did have his admirers also. Those who identified with the rehab focus will be pleased, as will the advocates of punishment.

Overall, these announcements are pleasing. A reversion to the traditional harsh on crime rhetoric may please right-wing voters but it does not solve the recurring problem of inmates re-offending once released. Also, a leap to the softly-softly approach would have ostracised many on the right, those whom Cameron already has difficulty in appeasing.

By merging the focus into one of both punishment and rehabilitation a new and hopefully more successful approach has finally broken the tired issue of what to do with our prisoners.

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