One only needs to turn the clock back a few years to the tenure as home secretary of one of the most craven, complacent, conceited and catastrophic public figures of recent years: Douglas Hurd. As home secretary he presided over record crime increases, allowing more criminals to roam the streets than any of his predecessors and ruling out any notion of reducing crime. Lord Hurd's philosophy was Conservative penal tradition at its worst: that the purpose of policy was to stem the increase in crime. The thought of reducing it was laughed out of court.When Labour claimed that a Tory government would take us back to the 1980s I was delighted, unfortunately the one aspect of the Thatcher government that the coalition seem to want to emulate is their strategy on crime, where the brilliant idea of not locking up convicted criminals led to a surge in offending.
No liberal penal idea was too much; any idea of punishment didn't bear contemplation. As home secretary, from 1985 to October 1989, Lord Hurd set out to reduce the prison population. The consequence was a rapid increase in crime. In 1985 there were 46,800 prisoners, rising to 50,000 in 1988 as judges responded to the consequent crime wave. But rather than back the judges, he cut the prison population so that it fell to 45,600 soon after he left. Police-recorded crime increased from 3.6 million in 1985 to 4.5 million in 1990. Yet even today he still bangs the drum for reducing prison numbers as chairman of the Prison Reform Trust.
Ken Clarke attributes the fall in crime from the early 1990s to his success as Chancellor rather than Howard's tenure as Home Secretary. However it is noticeable that the recent recession saw a drastic fall in the homicide rate to its lowest point for almost 20 years so it isn't really clear cut that economic growth reduces crime.