Thursday, 19 May 2011

On Clarke's policy and comments

[trigger warning: rape, prison]

So, the big news recently is that Kenneth Clarke MP (Conservative, Rushcliffe, Minister for Justice) has made some comments about rape. As with a previous occasion, what he said was appalling, but it still wasn't particularly good even just considering what he meant.

The BBC has helpfully provided a transcript of the interview.

A bit of background: Clarke is considerably more liberal on punishment than the average Conservative, concentrating more on alternatives to prison. This has brought him into conflict with both his own party and with Labour, who generally support the "lock 'em up and try not to think too hard about what to do next" approach to sentencing.

At the moment, a suspect who pleads guilty can expect to have their sentence reduced by up to a third. Clarke proposed that this be increased to a possible reduction of a half, for all crimes.

Labour opposed this, and Clarke's junior minister, Crispin Blunt MP (Conservative, Reigate) gave rape victims as an example of people who would benefit from early guilty pleas. Sadiq Khan MP (Labour, Tooting) asked a follow-up question, which Clarke then answered.

The press reporting then concentrated on the effects on sentencing for rape, and Clarke gave the interview above.

He has since clarified that he thinks "all rape is a serious crime" and that he had made the "wrong choice of words" earlier.

So, two things:

On Clarke himself

He is not the best person for picking the right words, which is a political liability, though not a moral one. However, I think his problems regarding the treatment of rape cases go beyond that.

I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that, intellectually, he gets that all rape is serious, that rape without additional violence is still serious, that rape within a relationship is serious, and so on. The problem is that he doesn't appear to instinctively understand this.

So, when he's under pressure - in an interview or in the Commons - and doesn't have the luxury of thinking it through, he says things that he wouldn't otherwise say.

I don't think he should be sacked as Minister for Justice over this - bad as his instinctive attitudes on this issue are, they're fairly typical for a privileged man who's spent their whole life soaking up rape culture, and so I have no confidence that anyone the coalition picks as a replacement would be any better. (Yes, there are people on the coalition benches who would be far better on this issue, but they're not likely to get the job if Clarke steps down)

I would, however, recommend that he does a lot more reading of the research on rape and rapists, until it starts to sink in at an instinctive level. It would - as well as the general benefits to society of having a Justice Minister who got this - make it less likely his verbal slip-ups would be in the pro-rape direction.

One of the exchanges in the transcript that hasn't yet been widely picked up on is this one:

Derbyshire (interviewer): Have you met women who've been raped?

Clarke: I've taken part in rape trials. I was a lawyer, sort of, yes I've met women who've been raped.

Derbyshire: And have you put this idea to women who've been raped?

Clarke: No I haven't put this idea to women who've been raped because I haven't met one recently. My experience of rape trials….

Now, the idea of halving sentences for guilty pleas has been around for a while. I can find news reports from late 2010 that talk about it as a policy proposal that had already been introduced by the coalition.

Quite evidently the chances that Clarke has met no women who have been raped since then are zero. He might not have sat down with anyone to ask "as a rape victim, how do you feel about this plan?" (though, one might think that asking the people a policy will supposedly benefit might be a good start) - but that's not quite the same thing. (Derbyshire's first question from the exchange isn't useful for much the same reason)

Intellectually, but not instinctively.1

On the policy

It all comes down to the details, of course, but I think the policy in general is fairly good - and it would be a shame if it was lost because Blunt and Clarke can't keep their feet out of their respective mouths.

Prison - in contradiction to former MP Michael Howard (Conservative, Lords) and current MP Jack Straw (Labour, Blackburn) - does not work all that well. For crimes so severe that life imprisonment is appropriate for the protection of society, it's necessary.

For other crimes, society - those parts of society living outside the prison walls, at least - may be temporarily protected while the offender is in prison, but unless successful work is done on rehabilitation, that often stops when they're released again.

We don't know anything like as much about rehabilitation as we should - because it's been far easier for politicians to go for a populist "lock 'em up" approach. So keeping people on average in prison for less time, and using the significant savings to fund more and better rehabilitation programs, seems an excellent idea in general.

What about for rape?

From what we know about rapists, any rapist who actually gets caught has probably committed several rapes that most people don't know about. (Weinrott and Saylor's research, for instance, estimates an average of 10, though with significant variance). Numerous studies into undetected rapists have shown that they will readily admit to raping people - provided they're asked "did you do action X?" not "did you do action X which is rape?".

The likelihood of a released rapist reoffending is therefore almost certainly really high. Effective intervention and rehabilitation - given that we don't give most rapists a life sentence - would therefore significantly reduce the number of rapes. Letting a rapist out after two years, with effective rehabilitation so that they don't reoffend, is far better than letting them out after four years without that and having them continue their crimes (I'm assuming an average 8-year basic sentence, halved for general parole, halved again for an early guilty plea).

(Starting early on the rehabilitation might also prevent them committing more rapes while in prison, which is an aspect of the crime and punishment debate which gets swept under the carpet rather too often)

Can two years of prison costs, targeted on someone who entered a very early guilty plea and so is perhaps more likely to be reformable, deliver a highly effective rehabilitation programme? I've absolutely no idea. That's for government researchers to figure out, and as I said, it all comes down to the details.

It seems, to me, that if after doing that research it looks feasible, that it's got to be worth trying. We can't end rape by locking up all the rapists - there's just too many of them by several orders of magnitude. That's not to say that temporary imprisonment of the ones we catch won't help, but it can't solve the problem.

Prevention of rapes, by preventing people from becoming rapists, and convincing existing rapists to stop, is the only way that rape will stop being such a major problem. Imprisonment is a fairly ineffective way to convince rapists to stop - we need something better. If Labour and the Conservatives are going to unite behind a "tough on crime" populist stance every time alternatives are suggested, this won't happen soon.


1As an aside, this is yet another problem with having MPs and senior civil servants mainly come from the most multiply-privileged section of society (which is unsurprisingly also the section least likely to be raped). A government and civil service that more reflected who actually lives in society would notice these things before the public mistakes.

"Intellectually, but not instinctively" is the reason why well-meaning privileged allies are no substitute for people with lived experience, and that includes in Parliament. The counter-argument that MPs have to represent all their constituents really misses the difference. I've written about this before.