Sunday, 13 September 2015

Another Letter from America


I spent Friday in the delightful city of Annapolis observing a session of the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. The sleepy colonial era state capital might be a slightly incongruous setting for discussions about improving the justice system’s response to crimes and misdemeanours on the mean streets of cities like Baltimore but there was no doubting the energy with which the Commission engaged  and interrogated a comprehensive presentation about its current performance.

A technical assistance team funded as part of the Federal Justice Reinvestment initiative (JRI) bombarded the meeting with data on trends in incarceration and recidivism and how well current practices across the state and its 24 counties comply with evidence about what works to reduce offending by adults.  The meeting was one of a series designed to enable the State to reform its law, policy and practice to obtain greater public safety, better value for money and less unnecessary use of imprisonment.

Two things stood out about the meeting. First is the range of participants. Representatives from all three branches of government took part – legislators from both parties and both houses, judges, prosecutors and public defenders  and a variety of executive agencies including police and corrections from state and county level. Such a wide ranging presence is not an accident. It is a requirement if States want to join the JRI and benefit from the federal support in diagnosing problems and proposing solutions.

Second, the type of reforms which the Council will consider are equally wide ranging. Three sub groups have been established to look at possible changes to sentencing, to release and re-entry arrangements and to the type of supervision available in the community.  They will work speedily to ensure proposals are on the table by year end. If Maryland follows the other 27 states who have worked on Justice Reinvestment, legislation will follow soon after. The reform measures introduced in these states have included, repeals of mandatory minimums and reductions in the going rate for certain crimes; increases in the ability of prisoners to earn early release and more generous parole eligibility and improvements. Resources freed up by the resulting reductions in prison numbers have funded more and better education and treatment programmes both in prison and the community.

A forthcoming report for Transform Justice will look at what might be learned from this approach in England and Wales. Many of the specific reforms made in US States are of course first attempts to start to unwind the catastrophic growth of incarceration seen over the last thirty years, an increase which makes our own prison population  increase over that period look extremely modest. But some of the principles of JR may well have a good deal of relevance.

Michael Gove’s announcement on Friday of a review of youth justice suggests for example that quite a lot might be learned about how best to go about introducing  reform in the justice field.. It is scarcely credible that the review he has ordered will not consider the age of criminal responsibility, the way young people are dealt with in the criminal courts or the youth sentencing framework.  Quite apart from the fact that the UK is in clear breach of international law by prosecuting children as young as ten in England and Wales, it is hard to see how a meaningful assessment can be made of how youth justice agencies are performing without considering the legal framework within which they are operating and the effectiveness of the sentences imposed on young people.


The whole thing may simply be a fig leaf to complete the unfinished business of abolishing the Youth Justice Board. But youth, and come to that adult, justice needs something much more comprehensive in scope along the lines of the exercises being conducted in respect of adult offenders across the US. 

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