Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mark Oaten: Abolish all the prisons

Mark Oaten is back in the news thanks to his taking part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Hecklers. The first broadcast was at 8 p.m. this evening, but you can catch the repeat at 10.15 p.m. on Saturday 11 August.

The idea of Hecklers is that someone puts forward an unpopular argument in front of a live audience. According to the BBC website, Oaten's case is that we should demolish all our prisons and replace them with education and training centres, mental health facilities and drug rehabilitation units.

According to Oaten, he desperately wanted to put this idea forward while he was the Lib Dem shadow home secretary but was prevented from doing so by his front-bench colleagues.

Oh yeah? I don't believe a word of it.

As The Diary of Chris K points out:
I do remember Mark talking a lot about 'tough liberalism', and pulling the Party to the centre ground. And everyone remembers that Mark was definitely going to be leader. I find it hard to believe that someone who saw his path to power as making the Lib Dems a centrist party with a tough approach to law and order was at the same time being clobbered behind the scenes because he wanted to abolish prisons.

It just doesn't fit. Sorry, Mark.
But then Mark Oaten's career always has been a mass of contradictions.

When he was first elected to the Commons he announced that he was going to be a new breed of MP. He was going to concentrate on working hard for his constituents in Winchester, and if that meant he was rarely seen at Westminster, then so be it. He went on in short order to accept the two most Westminster-centred jobs going: Charles Kennedy's PPS and chair of the parliamentary party.

Equally, it was clear that he had long set his sights on becoming party leader, yet when the chance came he proved to be laughably unprepared.

Still, Oaten has started an interesting debate. I have always held the unfashionable (for a Liberal Democrat, at least) belief that retribution must play some part in punishment. If you get rid of it altogether, which seems to be what Oaten is proposing, then the danger is that you lose any sense of making the punishment fit the crime.

As the BBC website says:
Mr Oaten believes offenders detained in mental health facilities should only be released when they are no longer considered a threat to society.

David Rose, a journalist who has taken a special interest in criminal justice issues, believes Mr Oaten's plans would result in a highly authoritarian system.

If, as the research seems to indicate, the success rates of psychological treatments is poor, the end result could be large numbers of offenders being detained indefinitely with little chance of release, even if their crimes are relatively minor.

"What Mark Oaten is arguing for is a massive increase in state power with all kinds of new powers for bureaucracies to decide whether people should be released depending on whether they've completed some kind of cognitive behavioural programme," says Mr Rose.


Joe Otten said...

You're quite right on retribution. We have prisons largely full of insane, addicts and illiterates and not calculating criminals, because we do the retribution bit right, and fail on education and mental health. Cut the retribution and we will expand the crime sector to include lots of calculating criminals too.

Martin Tod said...

Agree that retribution and showing society's disapproval has an important role.

From the victim's perspective, restorative justice should also have a role.

Anonymous said...

I hold no brief to speak for Mark, but I do know that he has a great reputation as a local MP. Given that, I think your claims about him being Westminster centric are cheap.