Mr Clarke told me this story when I was interviewing him for The Bishop and the Prisoner, a series for Radio 4 about the prison system. From the point of view of his political opponents — particularly those inside his own party — this anecdote pretty much sums up Mr Clarke. He always was a liberal, keen to cut prison numbers, use “soft” community-sentencing options, and perhaps to subvert the mantra adopted by John Major to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”.
Many people wondered how it was that New Labour delivered a penal policy that turned out to be so punitive. If that was a surprise, then it is even more of a surprise now that it is a Conservative Justice Secretary introducing radical changes that the reform lobby have been advocating for years. Is this because the evidence that prison does not work is now incontrovertible?
When Mr Clarke left the Home Office in 1993, the prison population numbered 44,000. It increased from 61,000 to 85,000 during the 13 years that Labour was in power. In November, it topped 88,000 for the first time.
Some people read these statistics — particularly in the light of falling crime — as proof that prison does work. David Green, from the think tank Civitas, told me that more rather than fewer people should go to prison. And locking people away is indeed one of the purposes of prison: it protects society. It also punishes the offender — although not enough, some suggest, because its success in meeting another of prison’s objectives, that of deterring would-be criminals, is questionable.
What prison clearly fails to do is to rehabilitate enough offenders. More than 60 per cent of those released from prison after short sentences reoffend within a year. Rehabilitation did not work because “nothing does,” Mr Green said. “It’s because they are bad people.”
I met similar pessimism from offenders themselves. Tony, a prolific offender, told me that prison was an inevitable way of life for men like him, and it could not work precisely because it was full of people like him. He wants to keep out of prison now, because he is too old for it. But do we really want to wait until people have wasted their youth before they can start living useful lives?
Mr Clarke’s arguments for sentencing reforms may not sit well with the right wing of his party, but the ill winds of the economic crisis are adding momentum to his sails. The Ministry of Justice has been asked to cut its budget by 23 per cent over the next four years, which means that it has to find savings of more than £1.5 billion.
The Prison Reform Trust estimates that the annual cost of a prison place is £45,000; community sentencing is certainly cheaper. There is evidence that it might also be more effective in reducing reoffending.
The perception is that community sentences are soft. Part of the problem is that society seems to think that prison is the only way to punish people — a view that, I think, we should challenge. But it is also true to say that the more rigorous the community sentence, the more likely it is to succeed.
In Liverpool, I have met men who were on a scheme for prolific offenders. They were subjected to regular drug and alcohol testing, and strict monitoring. They welcomed the stringency of the scheme, saying that it was helping them to stay out of prison.
I have also come across an intensive Community Payback scheme, where offenders work 40 hours a week and are under curfew at night. For many, it will be the first time in their lives that they have had to report for work each morning. They are taking pride in their work, and some tough estates are being transformed.
The residents of one of these estates — Westminster, in the north of Liverpool — described how their fears about offenders’ working near by were alleviated once the work began. Soon, they were plying them with tea and biscuits, and the participants were going into their homes to do jobs that never appeared on the schedule of works.
All of this suggests to me that a reason to support community sentencing is because it might change the attitudes of society as well as those who have fallen foul of it. It keeps the orange-jacketed offender in front of us rather than locked away out of sight. As individuals rather than statistics, they challenge the assumptions we make about them.
The law-abiding majority, like the prodigal son’s older brother, is sometimes appalled at a system that gives second, third, and 70-times-seven chances to those who have sinned against God and their neighbour. But, like the older brother, we, too, are asked to believe in the redeemability of the human being.
I hope that Mr Clarke survives any New Year reshuffle.
The Bishop and the Prisoner is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 9 and 16 January at 8 p.m.