Transcript — Re-thinking imprisonment: the role of evidence in penal reform
Helen Watkins, Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council member:
Hello and welcome to the fourth edition of Sentencing Matters, a podcast from the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council.
Voiceover (music): Sentencing matters - a podcast that informs, engages and advises on sentencing issues in Queensland.
I’m Helen Watkins a member of the council. In this edition I’m talking to Todd Clear, a Criminal Justice Professor at Rutgers University in Newark in the US state of New Jersey. Hello Todd, thanks for joining us.
Todd Clear, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice Professor
Your work on mass incarceration provides a significant number of learnings. One of the most powerful aspects of your work I think is the length of time you have been able to examine this issue. This truly gives potency to your findings and identifies unmistakable lessons. I want to initially focus on your experiences with using your research to influence public debates and public policy. In Australia the favoured response to crime increases or perceived crime increases is to extend sentencing, increase non-eligible parole periods and or to create new offences.
What successes have you witnessed in injecting evidence to switch these discussions and do you think western societies are open to these conversations?
So I think that’s a great question and in the US context I think evidence has been absolutely essential to a shift in the conversation away from those kind of solutions being automatically on the table to more creative ways of responding. I think there have been three kinds of evidence that have been really important.
The first kind of evidence is about the connection between the size of the prison population and the amount of crime and I think over the last 20 years it’s become increasingly clear from a variety of studies carried out in a variety of ways that locking up a lot more people has a much smaller impact on crime rates than people had assumed and may even be approaching zero, particularly in the levels of incarceration that exist in the United States.
A second kind of evidence is about the effectiveness of a wide variety of programmes such as drug courts, other kinds of programs that intervene into problems to try to prevent those problems from turning into more serious problems and we’ve learned that intervention programs, particularly rehabilitation programs can have significant impact and that you can do them best outside of the prison context.
And the third kind of evidence and the one that I’ve been interested in myself is the impact of large prison populations on communities that have concentrated members of those communities flowing in and out of the prison system. How it affects children. How it affects the economy of those communities and how those affects ripple out to make it much harder for those communities to function effectively.
In the US context those three kinds of evidence have shifted the debate away from the traditional remedies of more criminal justice to looking at other ways of trying to solve problems of public safety because the criminal justice lens doesn’t work that well.
I was very interested to hear you say that the second piece of evidence relates to the greater efficacy shown with community based programming. I’d be interested to know how far along are you with that transition or is that something that’s forecast to occur in the period of time looking forward?
There are two kinds of movements going on around communities. One is a grass roots movement in those communities, particularly responsibility for public safety problems and to minimise the impact of criminal justice, particularly law enforcement, on breaking up families and putting children into institutions and that kind of thing, to try and break the cycle of violence and to try to stop, so there are a lot of guns in the United States, to try to stop the impact of guns.
But the second movement is to work with people who have been into the criminal justice system and are returning to those communities to find places for them to be productive residents and both of these kinds of movements are in their early stages and not infancy, they’re maybe teenagers. But they all show promise particularly in America’s inner cities where high concentrations of people have been cycling through the prison system and they’re trying to find ways of stopping that cycle.
Ironically in the rural areas where there are also large proportions of people sometimes going in and out of prison, then remedies turn out to be different because the concentration of citizens is not as great, you have to think of other kinds of strategies to reclaim their rural areas.
It’s fascinating and I think that in Australia, I would like to think that we are focusing our direction in the same direction. In the United States I imagine that you have culturally specific considerations as we do here in Australia with our over representation of Indigenous populations. Do you find that there’s a good take up in specific cultural groups as well?
Well yes, I think the issues in Australia are quite different actually than the US and more or less unique to Australia and that’s important to bear in mind that the solutions here will be solutions that are invented in this society by the people who live here and want to change these issues. But in the US context former movements that have been led by African Americans coming out of the Civil Rights Movement that have been led by African American voices have been very very important.
In particular people who are former gang members or formerly incarcerated or formerly involved in violence are taking a leadership role in moving away from criminal justice as a strategy to community strengthening as a strategy.
That sounds wonderful. I was also interested in your use of the collateral damage in your studies and in particular thinking through the impact on these communities and that was around that third piece of evidence that you were just talking about. How do we address these communities which are already experiencing this collateral damage and I’m particularly interested in your investment in early childhoods and substance abuse programs or drug policies.
So the criminal justice system tends to reproduce itself through cycling people and then cycling the children of those people and then cycling the neighbours of those people. So one of the things we know, for example, is that having a parent go to prison increases the likelihood of a child going to prison by 25% to 50%, depending on the situation.
Another thing we know, for example, is that when a parent goes to prison children are more likely to get involved in school related difficulties and all the cycle of problems that start with that. So sending a parent to prison is not a solution for a kid, it’s a problem for that kid. What that means is that strategies that are built around stopping the cycle particularly stopping the intergenerational cycle are very, very important.
A role is played by people who have been involved with the criminal justice system in building those cycles out so nobody can get a gang member to understand how to leave a gang better than somebody who has been in a gang and left a gang right? Nobody can help a person avoid the kinds of trouble that happen when you drop out of school than a person who has dropped out, got in trouble and then gone back to school and now a success.
So it is partly the using the resources of those communities themselves that are the solution here. But I will say that the cost associated with the collateral damage created by a growing criminal justice system are astronomical and so there’s money available from criminal justice savings to be able to do the kinds of things you will need to do if you can reduce the growth of the prison system.
Your research obviously touches then on some very contentious and sometimes very emotive topics as well. Is there one lever in particular, for example, police practise or policy decisions about laws and penalties, judicial decision making, public pressure, that is associated with increasing incarceration? Do you think that any one of those things or another thing is a major driver or is it a culmination of various factors?
You can’t have one lever here work, we have to have multiples sources of change come together, but I will say in the US context there has been a change in the victim’s movement, which has been very important. One of the things we know is that people who are victims of serious crime are also often people who have themselves committed serious crimes.
For example among young black men who have been victims of crimes, many of them have also been engaged in criminal activities. So there’s this way in which it collects together and this separation between victims and offenders is a false separation in many respects and the victim’s movement has recognised it’s interest, not in moving beyond, I don’t want to over generalise because there is a very broad and complex victim’s movement in the US, but there are many voices now that are leading voices in that movement that have recognised that a pure punishment response doesn’t do much to restore victim, and doesn’t make a victim safer and doesn’t really communicate the kinds of thing a victim needs to communicate and at the same time treats the person who’s done the harm as though that person himself or herself been a victim previously.
So, for example, in cities where there’s a lot of urban violence, most of that violence, really two thirds of that violence is related to disputes between people and so once you’re a victim of violence you become that person who’s going to be the next perpetrator. So this idea that there’s not a clean protect the victims and punish the offenders but there’s really a collection of people suffering from problems and you have to intervene into those problems in order to prevent the cycle of violence that comes out.
It’s very important that the victim’s movement has been a key voice in putting that front and centre in front of elected officials.
That’s very good. So in Queensland, the criminal justice performance is often measured in pure statistics and the community seems almost comfortable with this locally here. What do you think this does for the system in terms of communicating what is important?
So I’m a numbers guy. I think there’s nothing better than a really good simple straight forward table and there are often times numbers hide a lot of things, you can lie with numbers obviously but what we found in our work particularly in Newark, which is a town that has suffered from a lot of violence, is showing maps that show concentrations of these problems. Showing pictures of implications for multiple subgroups changes the conversation that people have from this thing about some other person to this being about a place where I am from or a place where I am.
And it also means that instead of spreading across the entire landscape the way in which violence, particularly violent crime but also crime concentrates at particular locations over long periods of time repeating itself in patterns that we don’t seem to be able to stop, that changes the conversation as well. So I’m a believer in numbers, I’m a believer in pictures, maps, diagrams but in the end when somebody tells his or her personal story and it links to that information it changes the way people think about this stuff.
So obviously having facts on the table gives some veracity to the information and it can at times calm the level of hysteria that can sweep through when people are shocked and when assumptions are made about representations of crime. And there’s the very great value that comes from recognising whether something really is the problem that it’s made out to be, because there’s no point in throwing resources in a direction where they’re not really required. Do you find that having those numbers has any impact on assisting to have resources redirected to where they really need to be sent?
I wish I could say A-plus, you know 100%, but it’s clearly not the case. There’s a lot of very important interests at stake in the way the criminal justice system allocates its resources, vendors and providers and history. What I’ve learned and it’s really a fairly recent lesson even though I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years is that you’ve got to make sure you have at the table somebody who has been in the system, somebody who has been affected by crime, somebody who has had experience working with these issues and then the numbers can turn into strategies that have a chance of being put into place.
Listening is an important part of this dynamic, hearing people tell their life stories. But making sure that you’re not excluding people from the table whose stories are important to have at the table as well. Because we have some many people who have been incarcerated in the United States are now back out on the streets and now taking roles in society it is really straight forward to find those voices now in US and they stand for the kind of changes that need to take place. They’re not about creating unsafety, they’re about creating true safety, where children can be raised, where families can exist, where people can work and live their lives and at the same time not be victimised by the criminal justice system.
I really like that turn of phrase called true safety, I thinking that that’s very central to what people want and I look at crime and crime management more from my ideal is to, rather than waiting for it to happen and working to mop up the effects of it, is to start well and truly before that and it’s very reflective of what you’re saying in terms of being able to, not keep pace with this even, but get ahead of this in terms of being able to reduce the effects of crime and reduce the likelihood that people will turn to a life of crime but also that issue of safety.
Places that are safe have particularly important characteristics. They include how children feel to be there, how adults, confidence adults have in each other, the kind of willingness people have to help each other and you can invest in such a way to try to strengthen those places and create places where that kind of living is possible and it’s typically not the criminal justice system through Judges, probation officers, prison officers where that occurs. It’s really in a different kind of development. It’s not that you don’t need the criminal justice system, of course you do, but that is not the main fulcrum for producing communities where people want to live and work and raise their children.
That’s very well said. I think that’s probably a place for us to end unfortunately today. I think that it would be fascinating to continue to talk with you about your work and your notions for what will work well in the future. Thank you very much, I’m sure our listeners have a much better understanding of the effects of mass incarceration based upon what you’ve been able to provide for us here today.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of Sentencing Matters. For more information on sentencing issues in Queensland head to our website, sentencingcouncil.qld.gov.au.