Rehabilitation, not irrationality

Blair's speech exposes the government's bankruptcy on crime, says Eddie Ford

The number of people incarcerated in UK prisons is truly obscene. We have a situation where 109 people in every 100,000 are in jail - at the end of 2005 there were more than 77,000 people locked up in England and Wales, amounting to a near doubling of the 42,000 in 1991. As for the "not fit for purpose" home office, it grimly predicts that by 2010 the figure will have risen to a total of 110,000 - with statistics from 2004 telling us that each prisoner costs an average of £38,000 a year to keep banged up in the overcrowded hell-holes that are the UK's prisons.

Patently, all this is a living monument to capitalist failure - and a criminal justice system that is itself essentially criminal and terroristic. Of course, the UK still has some way to go before it 'catches up' with the United States - which locks up 702 per 100,000, resulting in a terrifying and disproportionately black prison population of just over 2.1 million. Welcome indeed to the land of the free and brave.

However, it is surely the case that the selfsame punitive and vengeful ethos we find in the US penal system also exists - and flourishes - in the UK. Thanks to the increasingly harsher regime in this country, more and more people are now receiving custodial sentences for crimes that previously did not merit such punishment.

For example, in 1995, 129 people were in prison for shoplifting - but by 2005 it was 1,400. Then in 2001, 3,000 people were sent to prison for petty theft - despite the fact that these were first-time offences. And, tellingly, the number of women in prison has risen disproportionately - from 1,800 in 1994 to 4,500 in 2004. On top of all this, some half of all prisoners have a reading age of less than the average 11-year-old - an obviously significant contributory factor to the quite shocking fact that some 59% of those released re-offend within two years.

What a waste of lives - and of resources, human and material. Yet, to judge by the recent debates - rows - over sentencing, you might get the perverse idea that the criminal justice system is not severe enough. We need to lock up more people, not fewer, whether it be "foreign criminals", "sex fiends", hoodies or lager louts. If anything, we are led to believe, some current sentencing is "unduly lenient", to use the words of the home secretary, John Reid.

Under increasing fire from the tabloids (especially the News of the World) and the Tories, Tony Blair decided to regain the initiative and at the weekend went to Bristol to deliver the first in a series of speeches portentously entitled, 'Our nation's future'. Naturally, the theme of his Bristol speech was 'law and order' and how there is a "huge and growing gap" between the criminal justice system and "what the public expects from it".

In his own way, Blair did make some pertinent and relevant comments - such as belief that "part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered and intellectual debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world". Furthermore, Blair pointed out that there is "no use saying that in theory there should be no contradiction between the rights of the suspect and the rights of that law-abiding majority" - as "in practice there is such a conflict" and "every day we don't resolve it, the consequence is not abstract: it's out there, very real, on our streets". Nor can communists disagree with Blair's observation that "because of the emotions inevitably raised" - and the "headlines that scream" - whenever crime is discussed, we "urgently need a rational debate" instead.

But for all his semblance of rationality, Blair's populist blueprint for the future consisted of a diet of yet more legislative clampdowns and stiffer sentencing - and an implicit attack on the so-called 'liberals' in the home office and elsewhere who apparently believe that the rights of suspects "outweigh" those of the "law-abiding majority". In other words, more authoritarian laws and further attacks on democratic rights.

Hence, for Blair, "unpalatable choices about liberty and security" needed to be made in order to "rebalance" the criminal justice system in favour of victims and the general public. Predictably, Blair insisted that the "welter" of legislation introduced by his government had been necessary. What was now needed, he argued, was to "reclaim" the criminal justice system and change the "mindset" of an "out of touch" political and legal establishment - which were "in denial" about the changing world and the "crime spiral" of the last 50 years. This would require more laws "that properly reflect reality" and - no doubt encouragingly for the likes of the News of the World and the Daily Mail - went on to complain that previous efforts to introduce "tough" summary powers had been watered down by parliament.

Attributing the "changing face of crime" to phenomena like "geographical and social mobility" and "more fluid family structures", Blair claimed to identify with the public who "think they play fair and play by the rules" - and yet "they see too many people who don't getting away with it". These "decent law-abiding folk" are "right" to think that the political-legal establishment does not fully or adequately understand their concerns.

In conclusion, Blair told his Bristol audience that many of the laws already introduced - such as anti-social behaviour order legislation - had made a "real difference" but they had not been "clear or tough enough". Therefore, "we need to do an audit of where the gaps are and the laws that are necessary" - and an "overhaul" of the entire court system to make it "fit for 21st century purpose".

Since 1997 the Labour government has passed more than 40 pieces of criminal justice legislation. So more of the same then - just more of it? Or, as Martin Kettle in The Guardian puts it, Blair's "addiction to campaigning by legislating remains voracious" (June 24).

Of course, the government has an immediate problem when it comes to implementing its "overhaul" of the criminal justice system. Put simply, it is rapidly running out of prison space. Thus last October we were informed that the jail population had reached 77,622 - that it, it was just 527 places short of capacity, or 99.3% towards the 'house full' limit. Inevitably, just like now, this produced a flurry of excited newspaper headlines and a political row about the best way to be 'tough on crime'.

What is to be done? Extend the early release scheme so that prisoners can leave jail six months early rather than the current four and half months? Bring back mothballed prison wings into use and make more use of community service orders? Build more prisons - if so, how many, at what cost, and when will they come into service?

Slightly desperately, Downing Street has announced that 1,000 new prison places will be ready by next year - somehow. However, this declaration has not reassured some. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, argued that "if the government really was interested in making the streets of Britain safer" then they should stump up the cash for "at least 50,000 new police officers" and "five to 10 new prisons".

By any rational, humane and social standard, prison does not work - whatever reactionary idiots might say. Clearly, the government - and the ruling class in general - have no real answers when it comes to crime and punishment.

Nor does it have the slightest intention, as Blair famously promised, of dealing with the causes of crime - capitalism and class society. But for communists - as we have always stressed - crime can only be understood in relationship to the given society. And, inevitably in a class society, crime is a product of alienation, want or resistance - and the 'justice system', while reflecting the balance of class forces, essentially aims to beat the population into subservience.

As for us, the aim must be rehabilitation - not punishment or revenge. Therefore, we demand:

l Prisoners must be allowed the maximum opportunity to develop themselves as human beings - there should be a wide range of cultural facilities. Prisoners must be allowed access to books, newspapers, periodicals of their choice and the internet.

l There must be worthwhile prison work, paid at full trade union rates and limited to seven hours a day.

l Cells must be self-contained and for one person alone.

l People should only be imprisoned within a short distance of their own locality - if not, families must be given full cost of travel for visits.

l There must be daily visiting hours and provision for weekly 24-hour conjugal visits.

l Medical treatment must be via the general health service.

l Incoming and outgoing letters should only be checked for contraband: they must not be read or censored.

l Prisoners must have the right to vote and to stand for election.

l Prisons must be run under the supervision of organisations of the working class.