Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s stupid words about rape were seized on by the right-wing media to bash the Government’s Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”.
The underlying message of the Green Paper is that prison is not the most cost-effective way to protect the public from crime. The Green Paper wants fewer people in prison — though not necessarily fewer prisons — fewer short sentences, more “community punishment”, more people working or being trained while they are in prison.
Newspapers such as the Sun and Daily Express reject the idea that “prison doesn’t work”, which is Clarke’s tone. Conservative Douglas Hurd was the first politician to dare to suggest this back in 1991. By 1993, Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard was insisting again that “prison works”, responding in part to the right-wing media.
The Prison Service is also under pressure, along with all other areas of government, to make cuts. Here as well, as elsewhere in the public services, the Tories think that letting the private sector in on the act will save money: companies such as Serco and Group 4 will get a bigger role and more chance to make profits from incarceration.
On the rape issue, Clarke’s words, suggesting that date rape, for example, is not “proper” or “classic” rape, reflect the fact that the length of a rape sentence depends to an extent on the amount of violence the perpetrator uses in the crime. The scale is already there, it’s just that Clarke seemed to imply it went from “not all that serious” to “serious”, when in reality it goes from “serious” to “serious and particularly brutal”.
Up for debate in the Green Paper is whether criminals should have the chance to have their prison sentence cut in half if they confess before trial. Labour had already brought in reduction by one third.
In the case of rape, the desire to increase the discount awarded for confessing does reflect partially the laudable intention of reducing the ordeal for victims testifying against an attacker who pleads not guilty. But that consideration is in tension with wider attitudes to rape.
Clarke’s stupidity on this occasion reflected the desire of society as a whole for victims of sexual crime to make as little fuss as possible, “get over it” and get on with their lives.
This desire exists for many reasons. Justice is time-consuming and expensive. The true scale of sexual violence in society is enormous and the resources needed to tackle it — through education and prevention, and through rehabilitating offenders — are not about to be made available.
And, finally, it’s still easier, at least to some extent, to blame the victim.