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?

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?

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

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

Photo: Getty
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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.