America's newest export: criminal justice reform

From prisoner education to 'problem-solving courts,' the US and Britain are teaching each other how to reduce incarceration and recidivism. The efforts are driven by both budgetary and moral urgency.

Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Reuters
A jail cell at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, is seen in a file photo taken September 29, 2010.

If asked to make a list of countries that are models for criminal justice reform, many Americans might put the United States somewhere far from the top. 

After all, no country has more people in prison than the US, and 1 of every 52 American adults is on probation or parole.

Given this context it may be surprising to learn that, when looking for examples of smart criminal justice reforms, British officials have looked stateside – specifically to the historically punitive state of Texas.

Faced with an overcrowded and increasingly violent prison system, Britain has been turning to the US for solutions. Starting with a suite of prison reforms outlined by Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday, the country is looking to implement a number of reforms that have proved successful (albeit over a short period) in America. 

The catalyst for these reforms has been Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who is pushing the country’s Conservative government to bring a "reforming zeal into the dark corners of our prison system" – echoing the compassionate message of conservative reformers in America.

The overriding mission in Britain is similar to that in the US: Reducing prison populations through alternative sentencing of low-level offenders, and making prisons themselves more rehabilitation-focused. And although the problems differ in scale between the two countries, the solutions could be similar.

Britain's prison population has doubled since the 1990s – it now has more people behind bars than any country in Western Europe – and prison violence has reached a "crisis point." Even five of the six "reform prisons" identified in the Queen's speech – the laboratories for these reforms – are overcrowded.

"We don't have the mass incarceration problem Americans have," says Robert Allen, a London-based independent researcher who studies international penal systems. "Having said that, for various reasons we do look to America for various lessons."

As recently as 2007, Texas had a mass incarceration problem. The state literally ran out of room in its prisons, and legislators found themselves facing a choice between spending $2.63 billion on 17,000 more prison beds, or investing in recidivism reduction programs.

It chose the latter, ultimately spending $241 million on supervision and treatment programs for offenders, and expanding community-based sentencing options like halfway houses and "problem-solving courts" – specialized courts designed to divert low-level offenders from prison to rehabilitation programs.

Crime rates have declined in the state every year since, reaching their lowest level since 1973, and in 2011 the state closed a prison for the first time in modern history, according to Derek Cohen, a deputy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. It has closed two more since then.

Texas' success attracted the attention of Mr. Gove, who visited the state last year to see the results for himself, learning more about the prisoner education programs and specialty courts.

"To a much smaller degree he had the same issue, he had a system in which warehousing tends to be in vogue, [not] actual rehabilitation," says Mr. Cohen, who met with Gove during the visit last year.

"We needed a novel solution to help us address this recidivism issue," he adds. "That's where we found common cause."

It appears that Gove came away particularly interested in the state’s specialty courts, and has spent this year researching how to implement them in Britain.

Britain is now preparing some pilot schemes for specialty courts later this year, according to Mr. Allen. The combination of cost-effectiveness and moral responsibility has seen criminal justice reform become as popular among the British political right as it is America's.

"[Gove] is quite religiously motivated about it I think, in common with some of the American reformers. He's much taken with this concept of redemption and the notion that prisoners should be seen as assets rather than liabilities," says Allen.

Britain has tried and failed to implement these kinds of reforms in the past, however. Five pilot drug courts were set up in the early 2000s, modeled on a successful court in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but two of the most prominent were shuttered a decade later due to "financial pressure," advocates said.

This illustrates not only the potential challenges of implementing reforms despite political support, Allen says, but also that any model from another country has to be tailored to the local context. 

US courts, for example, handle many more minor offenses than their cross-ocean counterparts. That means British specialty courts handle fewer but more complicated cases. It can be harder to find the best treatment options for an offender, and recidivism is harder to prevent. 

"We need to make sure that when we set these pilots up, this time we develop them in a way that really fits our system and our needs, rather than borrow a model that might have had a big impact in a poor part of Brooklyn," says Allen.

Craig Haney – a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has been studying the US prison system for four decades – says he finds it ironic that the system has now become a model for other countries. Problem-solving courts have existed in America since 1989, yet they are still rare, and their results are mixed across the country.

"They're all very positive changes, but they're all relatively recent in origin in the United States, and you would be hard-pressed to say they're widespread," he says.

Texas itself embodies a bizarre dichotomy. Alongside reform efforts that are being emulated around the world, the state has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, and has executed more people this year (six) than any other.

And experts say that while the US and Britain are helping each other reform, the criminal justice systems in both countries still have a long way to go. The US could learn from Britain's new prison reforms, for example, though states like Washington and Georgia are already moving in that direction.

"It's ironic that these very limited and very recent attempts in the US to reduce the prison population are already being transported elsewhere in the world," says Dr. Haney. "This shouldn't be the occasion for congratulating ourselves on having fixed the problem, because we haven't."

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