Since 2018 there have been a number of initiatives to reduce the number of people in prison, particularly in the USA. Here are just a few, along with some ideas about how those numbers could be reduced even more.
1. An end to private prisons?
In good news from the USA, as of 6th of January 2021, President Biden has issued an Executive Order to phase out the use of Private Prisons thereby removing the perverse incentive to put more people in prison and keep them there longer. Private prisons also tend to be more expensive, more violent due to lower staffing levels and for the most part, offer less accountability and fewer services for rehabilitation. Their closure will not be immediate, but their contracts will not be renewed. It is to be hoped that other countries such as the UK, NZ and Australia will soon follow suit. As far as Australia goes, 20% of of its prison population is in private prisons - compared to 8% in the US, and Australia currently spends $658 million a year on highly profitable multinational companies which do not pay a cent in tax. This does not include the $3.4 million per person per year being spent on the 239 people being held in private offshore immigration detention.
2. Less punishment for minor offences
Three strikes laws
In keeping with other fashions in policing, many US states and some other countries such as New Zealand and the UK adopted three strikes laws which were seen as a response to"get tough on crime" calls in the 1980’s. Meant to act as a deterrent, they involved giving life sentences to anyone convicted for the third time of even minor crimes such as burglary or non -violent drug offences. While California which prosecuted this line most vigorously did report a drop in crime, other jurisdictions which did not have such policies reported even larger ones. The six most lenient states had a reported drop of 21.3% in crime over 4 years compared to 12.7% in California.
Keeping people in prison for life is hugely expensive– by some estimates $US 75,000 per year as well as affecting families left behind. It also poses greater risks to officers making arrests. Indeed, in some cases homicides actually increased since perpetrators were looking at life sentences anyway.
California now reserves this law only for the most serious and violent crimes and New Zealand is currently attempting to repeal its three strikes law. As proponents argue, judges already had the discretion to impose higher sentences on repeat offenders and even former opponents of the move say the public is tired of meeting the costs. They are reported as saying that as the law stands, "someone mugs a person three times and the NZ taxpayer is mugged six times.”
Broken Windows Policy
In a similar vein, New York attributed its rapid drop in
crime to its “Broken Windows Policy.” This held that if you immediately
acted on minor crime such as graffiti or a smashed window, then more serious
crimes did not follow. However, subsequent analysis showed that this was as at
least as much due to a greater police presence in "hot spots," the application
of other crime prevention strategies such as erecting fences around apartment blocks to prevent car theft and the fact that communities which looked
well maintained were less attractive to criminal elements and gangs. New York also ended its war on drugs.
The reductions in property crime in other countries in recent years have
also been noted but variously attributed to the introduction of surveillance cameras, more
neighbourhood initiatives and more emphasis on mental health, skill training in prison, help with substance
abuse and high -quality support on release which included help with employment and housing.
3. Preventing recidivism
The First Steps Act
Eager to reduce its high prison numbers, the USA introduced the First Steps Act (FSA) in 2018. This saw 2,000 people released from prison by May 2020. A further 3,000 who had been given long terms under minimum mandatory sentencing laws, had their sentences shortened. In 2019, 3,100 were released for good conduct and a further 1,000 elderly, low risk and chronically ill prisoners were released to home confinement. Due to the risk of Corona Virus spreading in crowded prisons, a further 3,000 were also released to home confinement in the following year. Part of the FSA also requires the Prison Service to help ex -prisoners obtain benefits and social support so that they are less likely to return to prison.
Second Chance Act
The Second Chance Act in the USA was originally passed in 2009, but was reinvigorated by President Biden almost as soon as he took office in January 2021. It provides grants to agencies and organisations for programs which help offenders to stay out of gaol. They cover a broad range of services from staff training, to mentoring prisoners before and after they leave prison, technology career training, family -based substance treatment and a number of employment services. Grants to the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative for example, linked people with service providers, assessed each person’s risk and needs during his or her first 30 to 60 days in jail and collaborated with jail staff to direct people to needed in-jail services and treatment. At least five months prior to release, the programs then prepared participants for discharge and connected them with supports in the community. An Urban Institute’s analysis found that both programs reduced rearrest—by 70 percent for one program—and prolonged time to rearrest in another.
This is more in line with what happens in Scandinavian prisons. See the following clip from Finland which has one of the lowest incarceration and recidivism rates in the world and the next one about Norway.
4. Better Prisons
Click here for one which compares Norwegian High Security with the British system. Once again, it is about rehabilitation, helping people to become good members of society, rather than punishing them. Low prison numbers do not mean corrections officers need to fear for their jobs because Norway has a one -to one -ratio of prisoners to staff. According to the video, as far as costs go, this is about twice as expensive per prisoner than the UK currently spends, but it means much lower expenditure on courts and legal costs and future gaol costs so it is most likely a better bargain.
In the light of such revelations, North Dakota began an experiment in 2015, which sought to emulate conditions in Scandinavian Prisons by housing some 36 prisoners in self -contained accommodation. So far, it has been found to reduce violence, there have been fewer threats against staff and there is far less need for the use of force. By 2018 there had also been a 6.5% drop in the state's prison population. Unfortunately, with the huge numbers of prisoners in the USA, and lower but still large ones in Australia and the UK, this may seem likely a luxury which few prisons or the authorities responsible for them will be able to afford. There is also the problem of changing an entrenched culture - several prison officers left at the start of the North Dakota program, yet several other states are now looking closely at ways in which they could move more closely towards the Scandinavian model. Better prisons are but one aspect however. A society that spends more on prisons than it does on say, education and healthcare or forces people to commit crimes in order to survive, needs to take a good hard look at itself.
In the words of Dostoyevsky,
“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”
- House of the Dead (1862)