Mr Clarke’s Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil

By Theodore Dalrymple
Social Affairs Unit
April 18, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1904863601
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The first duty of any government is to preserve the public peace and protect the law-abiding citizen. As the guardian of the public purse, and for the sake of the taxpayer, it should do so as cheaply as possible; and if its policy does not work, or provide value for public money, it is duty bound to change it. This is what Mr Clarke is preparing to do. Crime rates in Britain have remained among the highest in Western Europe despite the fact that Britain also has one of the highest rates of imprisonment relative to its population in Western Europe. Moreover, the rate of recidivism among short-term prisoners remains intractably high. About seven out of ten prisoners given a short sentence are caught re-offending within two years of their release. Prison has thus failed to reform them, despite the high costs of imprisonment. The British criminal justice system taken as a whole, then, is not working very well. It is both costly and ineffective: the taxpayer gets the worst of both worlds. It therefore stands in need of reform and Mr Clarke has boldly seized the bit between his teeth. He thinks we ought to imprison fewer people and rehabilitate more. Dr Dalrymple recently spent six weeks in Yeovil, in Somerset, a normal English town. This is an account of what he found there, and how well it supported Mr Clarke’s reforming zeal. He discovered that there was indeed a need for reform; the system was not working. Whether Mr Clarke’s reforms are the right ones is, perhaps, another question. If Dr Dalrymple is right, they will at least have the merit of making sure that policemen, lawyers, probation officers, insurance loss adjusters, hospital casualty officers and trauma surgeons will have plenty to do for the foreseeable future. There will be full employment and an expanding market for them, if for no one else.

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