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Why is the American right closing prisons?

In the US the tide on criminal justice reform has started to turn as conservatives recognise the huge inefficiency of the prison system. Could the same happen here?

California's Department of Corrections officer looks on as inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard. Photograph: Getty Images.

Characteristically liberal policies that would be dismissed out of hand by right-wing commentators in Britain, such as keeping non-violent offenders out of prison and investing in rehabilitation in the community, are all the rage on the US right right now.

The Republican Governor of Texas has scrapped plans to build three new prisons, saving $2bn. This money has instead been reinvested in treating offenders with mental health and addiction problems. The state has reduced its prison population by 6,000, while keeping crime at historic lows.

The Republican Governor of Georgia has signed legislation that will reduce the number of low-level drug possession offenders in prison and expand the use of drug courts, which help treat addicts and hold offenders to account in the community.

And the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania has signed a law directing low level non-violent offenders into community supervision, which is set to save the state $250m over five years. Similar reforms have been adopted by Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

So, why are Republicans across the US pursuing what on the face of it are liberal policies on crime and punishment? The first reason is that many on the anti-state libertarian right look in horror at the amount of money being spent on the prison system. The US prison population has risen at a phenomenal rate, from 338,000 in 1970 to 2.3m today. In 2012, the states spent $54bn on prisons. In state budgets, one out of every $14 went to corrections, which employed one of every eight state workers. As budgets have tightened, other important functions of government have been squeezed to pay for this.

At the same time, many US conservatives have come to recognise that prison is ineffective at rehabilitating offenders. Half of prisoners released are expected to be back in prison within three years. Many Christian conservatives have come to see prison as a particularly poor method of achieving redemption for crimes committed.

So, what can we take from this for our own debate on criminal justice reform? The US debate clearly needs to be understood in context - the US is not Britain. For example, evangelical Christians and low tax libertarians play a much stronger role in the Republican party than they do in the Conservative party in this country. Also, the US prison population and levels of overall expenditure on it dwarf those in Britain.

Nevertheless, the shift in the US debate provides some useful lessons for those of us who wish to see a smarter debate about crime and punishment in this country. It shows that there are good conservative grounds for being sceptical about the use of prisons, some of which are reflected in the work here carried out by the right-leaning Centre for Social Justice, and indeed in some of the reforms introduced by the coalition. This opens the way for an alliance between conservatives and the liberal centre left on criminal justice reform.

It also shows how important it is on the question of crime to use conservative language even when pursuing progressive ends. Majority opinion on crime in Britain is essentially communitarian rather than liberal: people want to see breaches of widely shared social norms properly punished and are unsympathetic when it comes to issues such as conditions in prison.

However, people can also see that it is a colossal waste of public money to send tens of thousands of low level offenders into prison only to see them come out and reoffend. They want to see prisoners work hard in prison, rather than sitting around in their cells all day which is what most do at present. This means an emphasis on productive work and education, which liberal prison reformers have been advocating for years.

For years British politicians have looked across the pond for ideas on how they could be ever more 'tough on crime', which has fed into our escalating prison population. In the US the tide on criminal justice reform has now started to turn. Is it too optimistic to hope that, on this issue, where it leads Britain might follow?