US Criminal Justice Reform A Lesson For Us

Written by:
12 April 2019
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US President Donald Trump’s endorsement of criminal justice reform is a landmark for conser­vatives. After campaigning as the “law and order candidate”, Trump has been won over by the argument that government can reduce the growth of incarceration, boost rehabilitation and save money in the long term.

Trump’s support for the new approach cements its position as the new conservative orthodoxy. How this came to be so is something the Australian Centre-Right needs to study carefully.

Last week, Trump held a celebration for the passage of the First Step Act, which he signed into law in December. The act creates incentives for federal prisoners to participate in vocational education, repeals mandatory sen­tences for drug crimes and restores some judicial discretion for other nonviolent crimes.

Or as Trump explained: “Nonviolent offenders will have the oppor­tunity to participate in vocational training, education and drug treatment programs. When they get out of prison they will be ready to get a job instead of turning back to a life of crime.”

The First Step Act represents the latest success in a 15-year effort by conservatives in the US.

In 2005, Texas decided that its prison costs were unsustainable. The Republican-led state legislature shifted money from locking people up to rehabilitation and community-based punishments, targeting nonviolent offenders.

The results were immediate and vast. During the next decade, Texas avoided $3 billion in new prison costs and saw serious property, violent and sex crimes fall by 13 per cent. Texas has since become a model for other states. Similar reforms have been implemented in Republican-controlled states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi.

The consensus has become that governments should reduce incarceration for nonviolent offenders, and increase work and training opportunities within prison, which are correlated with reduced reoffending.

Australia’s incarceration rate is nearing a tipping point. In 1980, the US had an incarceration rate of 310 per 100,000 adults. Since then growth was exponential, tripling in only 25 years. By contrast, the Australian rate is 222 per 100,000 adults, up more than 30 per cent in the past decade.

Australia’s rate is also high in world terms: higher than Britain and Canada, twice the rate of Germany and three times the rate of Sweden. Moreover, Australia’s prisons are more than twice as expensive per prisoner than in the US. In Australia, it costs $110,000 to imprison someone for a year, the fifth highest rate in the developed world. So runaway incarceration will hit taxpayers hard.

As such, we need to act now. We can reform punishment for nonviolent offenders by increasing the use of alternatives to prison such as community service, home detention, fines and restitution orders. And we can improve rehabilitation by increasing the role of work in the corrections system. Nationwide, 34 per cent of prisons participate in vocational training. Of eligible prisoners, 80 per cent are in work programs. In community corrections, offenders serve on average less than half the hours of their sentence.

In Australia, the NSW Coalition government has shown it understands this dynamic. In 2017, it implemented reforms expanding the use of home detention, curfews and movement restrictions for nonviolent offenders that aim to reduce reoffending.

It is instructive to compare their recent electoral success with the failure of the Victorian Lib erals’ law-and-order election campaign, which correctly identified rising crime in Melbourne as a problem but offered nothing but ever-greater spending on prisons and police as a solution.

But the benefits of criminal justice reform are more than just fin­ancial or political. Corrections is a normative exercise where we try to shift offenders’ behaviour towards what we value as a society.

Trump’s celebration of his criminal justice reform was part of what he has officially designated as Second Chance Month, a month to reflect on giving in good faith, people another chance to be productive members of society.

The final lesson from the US, then, is that criminal justice reform is not just about efficiency, it is about reiterating our commitment to hard work and redemption as fundamental values.

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