My former boss, Lord Ashcroft, has published a major piece of research into the opinions of the general public, victims of crime and police officers on crime and the criminal justice system.
80% of police officers, and over 80% of the general public and victims of crime, think sentencing is too lenient.
More than two thirds of the general public and victims of crime believe that rates of reoffending when people are released from prison are high because “sentences are too short and prison life is not hard enough to serve as a deterrent to committing further crimes”; less than a third think it is because “prison does not focus enough on rehabilitating offenders”.
41% of the public and 35% of police officers see rehabilitation as “a hard-headed, practical way of trying to reduce reoffending rates”; 59% of the public and 58% of police officers are more inclined to see it as “a soft option that tries to make excuses for offenders rather than punishing them properly”.
Finally, 57% of the public expected the Coalition to be tougher than the last Labour Government in dealing with crime; only 13% think it is being tougher, 23% say it is less tough and 64% say it is about the same.
For what it is worth, I agree with the majority view that sentencing is too lenient and life in prison not tough enough (I was at a conference the other day where an ex-offender referred to doing time as "government holiday"). But I disagree with the majority's sceptism about rehabilitation - many offenders have drug, alcohol and/or mental health problems and Ken Clarke is quite right to argue that releasing them with trying to address those problems makes little sense.
The problem with this debate is that these two policies - tougher sentencing plus a tougher regime in prisons on the one hand, rehabilitation on the other - are often presented as mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not.
The primary function of prison should be to get dangerous criminals off our streets and, without treating them inhumanely, to ensure that the time they serve is a proper punishment for what they have done and deters them and others from offending in the future. But getting them off drugs and/or alcohol, treating any mental health problems they have and giving them the skills to earn an honest living on the outside is not a soft alternative to this.
Crime is the number one issue in my constituency. The Government needs to make the case more effectively for the good things it is doing on rehabilitation, but it needs to change its approach to sentencing where, as this research shows, it is out of step with the views of those who elected it.