Thursday, 10 September 2015

Letter from America

I’m in the US this week researching developments in criminal justice reform. It’s part of a project to update the report I prepared last year on Justice Reinvestment for Transform Justice. A few minutes into my first meeting, my interviewee looked down at his phone and told me he’d that minute received a text from the British Embassy inviting him to meet Justice Secretary Michael Gove when he’s in Washington DC later this month. I had to explain I had not been sent ahead as some sort of scout.

But the coincidence is perhaps not surprising. The election of a new Conservative government with savings to find in criminal justice and an interest in localism and devolution does provide a timely  opportunity to see whether the range of reforms undertaken in the name of Justice Reinvestment in more than 20 states - plus important changes at the Federal level -offer lessons for England and Wales.What might Gove learn about developments over here?

On the evidence of day one, most significant perhaps has been the changing conservative mind set on crime and punishment. At an American Enterprise Institute seminar this afternoon, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner described federal prison policy as “financially unsustainable and morally irresponsible”. He argued not only that continuous increases to the list of federal offences did the nation no service but that mass incarceration has torn families apart. As a former Chair of the Judiciary Committee who oversaw much of the federal prison expansion in the 1990’s, his conversion to the cause of reform has taken many by surprise.

As with better known advocates  of Right on Crime such as former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich  a combination of budget pressures, ideological preference for a smaller state and a belief in redemption have created a paradigm shift. The fact that the public have shown themselves more interested in effectively  reducing recidivism than in ensuring lengthy sentences are  served in full has meant that arguing for reform in this area no longer carries the electoral costs it once did. Californian voters have for example ensured that a third offence must be serious and violent to qualify for a mandatory minimum and that  stolen property must  be worth more than $950 for a theft to count as a felony. Small steps but probably unthinkable a decade ago.

Whether the public would go as far as David Kennedy who told the AEI meeting that overuse of incarceration actually leads to more crime- both by limiting life chances of offenders and weakening informal social controls in the community- is another matter. But there seems widespread support for his contention that improved legitimacy of  police and other criminal justice agencies and more effective communication to offenders of the punishments that they’ll face, could bring crime down further.

Indeed it is the bipartisan nature of the criminal justice reforms that is striking. Adam Gelb from the Pew Trusts told the AEI seminar that votes for reform packages in states around the country have received support from 6000 legislators and opposition from just 500.  This reflects no doubt the horse trading that has taken place before votes are taken.  Some agencies- prosecutors in particular – seem to have been nervous in some states. It’s not clear whether this is due to outdated knowledge about the most effective use of prison or political self- interest- they face the electorate in most states.

Other officials and unions might become more agitated if more aggressive reforms lead to prisons closing or more serious or violent offenders facing shorter sentences. Yet these are the measures which will be needed if serious inroads are to be made into US prison populations and substantial funds freed up for social programmes. In truth the reforms introduced so far have only touched the edge of what is compared to Western Europe still a draconian system.

Gove will find out that the momentum of those reforms has been slowed by reports of spikes in violent crimes in particular cities and by particularly horrific cases such as a San Francisco murder committed by an illegal immigrant.  If America’s twenty year crime decline goes into reverse, arguments for reform will be harder to make.   Whether these turn out to be bumps in the road or the end of the road remain to be seen.

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