We need a dual track policy, which recognises the role of prison in reducing crime – as Michael Howard and David Blunkett showed – but which also places a greater emphasis (as Ken Clarke is doing) on cutting the rate of re-offending through education of all kinds. We are working with the Justice Department to expand the work of the Heron unit in Feltham, where re-offending rates have been brought down from about 80 per cent to about 20 per cent. Bang them up, in other words, but turn them round, too.
Now the Treasury will rightly protest that all this is expensive; and that is why it is time to look at cheap and highly effective ways of both cutting re-offending and cutting offending in the first place. We need to look much harder at the role of alcohol in crime, and above all in violent crime.
I have talked to many London doctors over the past few years, and they have repeatedly stressed the horror and expense of the current booze culture. Go to any A and E on a Saturday night, and you will see the victims and perpetrators of drink-fuelled violence. They are being treated at considerable cost to the taxpayer, and at the moment we have very few tools – short of prison – to stop the drunken thug from going out and doing it again.
For more than a year we in London's City Hall have been advocating a scheme that has been highly successful in America, and that needs to be tried out in London as soon as possible.
It works as follows. If you are convicted of a drink-related violent offence then you may stay out of prison – if and only if you stay off the booze. You may think this is impossible to enforce, but in South Dakota they have come up with a very effective tool. You simply require the individual to take a breath-test twice a day. You make it a condition of his (and it is normally his) parole that he must report twice a day to a police station and prove that he has not been drinking; otherwise he is arrested and locked up. And it doesn't cost the state a thing, because you make sure that the – relatively low – cost of the breathalyser test is met by the offender.
In South Dakota they have had 16,000 people involved in the trial, and the system has been so effective in preventing repeat offending that the prison population has come down by 14 per cent. That is a big financial saving – and all from finding a way to keep the drunken thugs sober. Of course, we should continue with other programmes to get people off alcohol, of the kind that are championed by Alcohol Concern.
But this one is cheap, and it has real teeth. I have to say that we have not been lucky so far in our representations to government. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, has encountered a certain amount of what I will politely call bureaucratic resistance.
Alcohol plays a big part in domestic violence; tough anti-alcohol measures can help bring down crime, as we have seen on public transport, where a booze ban has been accompanied by a 30 per cent fall in crime statistics. If we won't lock them up, and we want to cut drunken violence, then sobriety tests must be part of the answer. We need to pilot the scheme now.