An optimist about human nature, and most Liberals are, would quarrel with Douglas Hurd's famous admission that prison is "an expensive way of making bad people worse." Rather it's an expensive way of making badly behaved people worse behaved. It is nevertheless refreshing, if somewhat of a surprise, that it's a Tory justice minister, Ken Clarke, who aims to put an end to the competition to appear tougher on crime than the other lot, and to use more intelligent and effective ways of changing the behaviour of criminals.
However, we have to ask how this squares with the promised cuts in the public services, not least the threatened 25% cut in the budget of the Home Office. The Probation Service is already grossly understaffed, the vital Prison Education Service already desperately underfunded, and at present there are often insufficient prison officers to allow prisoners to be let out of their cells to attend classes.
The circle could be squared if fewer people are put in prison (at a cost of £38 000 a year, more than the school fees at Eton), the present plans to build more prisons abandoned, and the money released put into these more productive avenues. But that would transfer public money, not cut it. There is a need for "joined up thinking" here.