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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder