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

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When is the Budget 2017?

Chancellor Philip Hammond will present the last ever springtime Budget to Parliament on March 8th. He has a tricky hand to play.

Fans of the Chancellor’s red box photocall outside 11 Downing Street are in for a treat this year - the abolition of the Autumn Statement means Philip Hammond will present not one but two Budgets to the Commons.

The first – the last ever Spring budget – will be published on Wednesday 8 March 2017. A second – the first Autumn Budget – will come later in the year. This will be followed by a new Spring Statement, which will respond to forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility but will no longer introduce new tax and spend changes. 

But what is likely to happen this time around? The Institute for Fiscal Studies set out a grim outlook for the chancellor in its "Green Budget" earlier this month. This year’s deficit will be higher than in 47 of the 60 years before the crash of 2008, the national debt is at its highest level since 1966, and the chancellor is still committed to the diet of austerity prescribed by his predecessor, George Osborne. With day-to-day spending on public services set for a real-term fall of 4 per cent between now and 2020 and those same public services already in a parlous state, Hammond has a difficult hand to play. 

However, Theresa May’s government has proved adept at U-turning when it needs to – think the Brexit White Paper and Amber Rudd’s lists of foreign workers. Here's what to look out for:

Changes to business rates

MPs of all stripes have been pressuring the government to rethink its plans on business rates, which will see new rates based on updated property valuations introduced for the new financial year. 

Initially, the government maintained that three-quarters of businesses won’t see any changes to their rates at all. But the fact that rates for pubs, shops, GP surgeries hospitals could be set to more than double riled Tory backbenchers, several ministers, the CBI and right-wing papers including the Sun and Daily Mail

We will likely see a concession from the Treasury on controversial changes, which were slated to kick in from April. Communities and Local Government secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that a solution would be in place by Budget Day. 

Reassurances for social care

Britain’s crisis-stricken social care system – and the vexed question of how we’re going to pay for our ageing population – also looms large. In the aftermath of the controversy around the government’s supposed “sweetheart deal” with Surrey County Council, local authorities and charities have been lobbying Number 10 for a new settlement – or at least some extra cash to ease the pain. 

Indeed, the Health Service Journal has revealed the Care Quality Commission is to be handed regulatory oversight for how councils manage their social care services, and a number MPs are increasingly convinced that the government could be set to unveil a modest increase in funding. Any such package would only be a sticking plaster.