LONDON -- The Conservative government, led by the Home Secretary Michael Howard and seconded by Prime Minister John Major, has made crime and punishment a central theme of its new back-to-basics legislative program.
Six new prisons, simple, austere and built and run by private enterprise, are projected in the criminal justice bill now before the House of Commons.
At the Conservative Party conference last month, delegates argued that prisons should be more than holding pens for prisoners: Prison regimes should be harsh enough to deter crime.
The criminal justice bill that embodies the Tories' program would abolish the right of silence traditionally guaranteed defendants in criminal cases, clamp down on bail abuse, allow taking of DNA samples and send offenders 12- to 17 years old to longer sentences in tougher institutions.
The government's position has been summed up in a phrase of Mr. Howard's: "Prison works."
"Thousands of dangerous criminals are prevented from attacking the community while they are inside," he said.
The Conservatives apparently believe they have the support of a public shocked by a 6 percent rise in crime last year that has resulted in a prison population rising by 500 inmates a month. But a high court judge described politicians as almost paranoid in their fear of being thought soft on crime.
Sir Harry K. Woolf, one of the Law Lords, the final appeal body in the British legal system, attacked Mr. Howard's initiative as "the easy option, which has a miserable record of failure, [of sending] more and more people to prison regardless of the consequences."
Lord Woolf, the author of a widely acclaimed study of the British penal system, dismissed tough talk on crime as "shortsighted and irresponsible."
He says, "Imprisonment is a very expensive way of making criminals worse."
His reservations were seconded by many other judges, who joined in his dismissal of the British prison system's ability to rehabilitate prisoners. Most believed prison terms should be as short as possible. Several said prison was a deterrent only until the first time a criminal actually went to prison.
Ironically, Derek Lewis, the head of the prison system under Mr. Howard, says the governmental "white paper" that accepted most of the recommendations in Lord Woolf's 1989 report still guides prison reform in England and Wales.
Mr. Lewis says the 132 jails in his system (Scotland runs its own prisons) are bulging. The population in mid-November was 47,212, slightly more than the capacity of 46,667. That's in a population of about a quarter that of the United States, where about a million people are in jail at any one time.
The prison population has risen sharply since the beginning of 1993. Mr. Lewis expects the trend to continue, fueled by "the very active debate on law and order in this country."