Readers of the late Oliver Sack's wonderful memoir of neurological deficits and disasters, 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' – and if you haven't read it, what a treat you have in store! - will recall the dreadful case of Jimmie G., victim of Korsakoff's syndrome, which left him unable to form new memories, so that he recalled nothing of the past 30 years or so.
Sometimes it seems Korsakoff's has quite a hold on penal policy. Politician after politician arrives at the Ministry of Justice seemingly unaware of – or at least, not much interested in - what has gone before.
For example, each in turn announces, as though as a new insight, that the rate of re-offending is really rather high, and that he wishes to reduce it, implying that his predecessors have for some strange reason not bothered to do so. Thus:
Jack Straw: 'reducing re-offending is one of the Government's highest priorities'
John Reid: cutting re-offending 'the central focus of our policy and practice'
Charles Clarke: 'the central aim' of his 5 year strategy
David Blunkett: 'the highest possible priority'
Ken Clarke: re-offending is 'a national scandal...unacceptably high...there is an urgent need for steps to counter it'
Grayling: 'under the previous Government, re-offending rates have barely changed. This can’t go on. '
Gove: 'horrified by our persistent failure to reduce re-offending'
(One has to go back to Michael Howard for an exception – he of course just 'knew' that prison 'worked', independently of any effect on re-offending.)
And what a cascade of proposals all these Sectaries of State have announced to get re-offending rates down! Reorganising prison and probation, more central control, less central control, cutting prison numbers, drug free wings , 'hard work' in prisons, using outside firms in prison industries, outsourcing to the private and third sectors, prisoner compacts, new community sentences, more or better education, new interventions, better mental healthcare services, help with housing, employment and resettlement, 'payment by results', 'community prisons' (Charles Clarke), 'working prisons' (Ken Clarke), 're-settlement prisons' (Grayling), 'reform prisons' (Gove)!
One might have thought that, given every single Secretary of State for two decades has made this his top priority, there would have been a thorough investigation of whether any previous policies have had any effect - and if not, why not. If there has been such a review, I haven't seen it. Rather, we get a rapid conclusion that nothing very worthwhile has been achieved before, and quickly on to the next panacea. Which, in fact, sometimes looks much like the old ones.
Such institutional amnesia matters, because it prevents us learning from experience. It is not just that 'he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it' (and in truth, there is precious little genuinely new in penal policy.) Equally, it can lead to abandonment of past policies which actually did work. There are examples of both in prison and probation.
There is a particular political context to this forgetfulness. In the 1990s, Labour moved sharply towards the right and on many issues, were not far apart from the Tories. The Blair Government took up, and much expanded, many inherited Tory penal policies – use of PFI for building prisons, Secure Training Centres, expansion of the prison population and prison system, emphasis on prison security and increased central control of both prison and probation systems. Thus on many issues, the two main parties shared responsibility for past policies. Might that in part account for the studied lack of interest in critically re-examining them? (It is curious that what one might call 'New Old' Labour has yet to recant on these policies, which may owe something to the fact that the Shadow Secretary of State, Lord Falconer, was Secretary of State under Blair.)
In future posts, I shall explore what might be learned from objective review of past policies - starting with reducing re-offending.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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