(Image: Getty Images)
(Image: Getty Images)

PoliticsNovember 5, 2019

Want lower prisoner numbers in New Zealand? Look at Texas, not Norway

(Image: Getty Images)
(Image: Getty Images)

New Zealand typically looks to Scandinavia for inspiration on improving our justice and corrections systems. But a prison expert says it’s actually Texas that can show us the best way to bring down our jail population. Ben Brooks spoke to Alex Braae about his research.

If you ever have to conjure up what justice looks like in the US state of Texas, it probably involves a lot of brutally long sentences, and sheriffs shooting to kill.

But a quiet revolution has been going on in the Lone Star State for the last decade, and it is starting to show real progress in reducing the prison muster. Since 2006 Texas has managed to reduce its prison population by nearly 15,000, and its imprisonment rate by over 23%. They’ve done that through much greater reliance on specialised and drug courts, a youth justice focus, and simply making the decision that fewer people would be sent to prison.

What is remarkable about the Texas experiment is that not only have crime rates continued to fall, there is bipartisan political support for the reforms, with both sides finding something to like about them. The agreement around prison numbers needing to fall has been a remarkable success story of consensus politics, even if neither side had much time for the arguments their opponents were putting forward.

It is into this environment that prison expert and JustSpeak advisor Ben Brooks has been travelling. A former employee of the Department of Corrections, his 15 year career has taken him on a tour through various public sector systems.

Now with crime and punishment set to be a major theme of the upcoming election, Ben Brooks is back in New Zealand to speak about the Texas experiment, and why some of the same social and political tools could be used here. He spoke to The Spinoff about what we could learn.

The Spinoff: What originally attracted you to looking at Texas, of all places? 

Ben Brooks: A bit of context – one of my previous roles has been with the Department of Corrections in New Zealand. From that work, it became clear – and I think many of my colleagues felt the same way – that we had a system that was pretty broken. So then the question became what do we have to do to fix it?

Lots of people go to the Scandinavian countries, and they come back with all this great stuff about the Norwegian corrections system, and how we need to be more like them. But then if you look at the trajectory of our prison population over time, to the degree that the goal was to try and change that, it hasn’t been successful. And so my thinking was that there was a couple of reasons why that work hasn’t had the impact people wanted it to.

Politically and culturally do we perhaps have more in common with Texas than we do with Norway? 

One factor is that New Zealand and Norway are just too different, so to take what they do and apply it to New Zealand is just too hard. And there are plenty of similarities with Texas, in some important ways. There’s a large minority population, a rapidly growing population generally, Texas has been very tough on crime – and in fact some of the tough on crime stuff we’ve done has been directly imported from Texas, so it’s easy to translate.

The other potential theory around why following the Norwegian model doesn’t work here – they tell you the goal to aim for, they don’t tell you what the first step to take to get things moving is. So looking around the world, Texas does help with that.

The third reason is about getting buy in. If you’re on the left, the Scandinavian countries are great, and everyone loves them. And then on the right, people tend to roll their eyes, which isn’t useful if you’re trying to get a political coalition together. Texas helps with all of that.

So the reductions in the Texas prison population – is that more about just halting the explosive growth in the prison populations that occurred in the 1990s? 

There’s a bit more to it. If you look around 2007, they had their major reforms. One of the things that helped them with those reforms is that they’d had advice that if they didn’t make any changes, they’d need to build 17,000 beds in the next five years. What they’ve managed to do is change the course they were on, to go into a period of slow but steady decline in the imprisonment rate. Their population growth has also been very rapid – for a period of time they were the fastest growing state in America – so their imprisonment rate decline has come despite that.

The crime rate and imprisonment rate in Texas (Image supplied)

Were tough on crime sentencing positions to come back, would you expect to see imprisonment rates jump again regardless of how they corresponded with the crime rate?

In New Zealand the crime rate has been dropping slowly but pretty steadily since the early 1990s, while the imprisonment rate has been going up sharply. So the link between those two rates is pretty weak. They just don’t seem to be very connected.

When it comes to specific hard line policies – minimum sentencing, or the three strikes rule for example – people often argue that longer sentences are needed as a deterrent for certain crimes. Is that true?

This project is very much around trying to reduce our imprisonment population. But it’s not about getting everyone out of prison. I still think there are people who have committed very serious crimes, who will need to be in prison. Labour has a target of about a 30% reduction, which I think is kind of conservative but is reasonable. So something along those lines, which mean we’d still have a prison population of around 7000.

There’s a lot of work that has been done with people with serious drug or alcohol problems, and people in those situations don’t tend to sit there and rationally weigh up the pros and cons of committing a crime. That was a theory that was in place for a while, not many places around the world buy into that. Maybe with financial crimes, and a chief executive pondering whether to defraud their company. For the vast majority of people in prison, we know lots of them have drug or alcohol, problems, a history of trauma, from overseas evidence lots are likely to have had some sort of head injury or cognitive problems in the past. The likelihood that they’re sitting they’re and thinking about how recently parliament passed some tougher sentencing laws is pretty weak.

Is there a significant private prison industry in Texas?

Yes, that’s a reasonable part of their system.

So with that business model, private prisons are basically reliant on more people being locked up. How did that impact the changes there?

Certainly for the Republicans, part of this has been driven by their key stakeholders. And private prisons were one of them, but they sort of got outweighed by the others. So when they had their 2007 reforms, that was going to cost $2 billion. In their constitution, there’s a balanced budget rule, so they can’t borrow. They’d either have had to cut programmes, or raise taxes. Obviously the prison industry might have been opposed, but all their other donors were much bigger and more strongly opposed to raising taxes, and cutting $2 billion worth of projects would have been too difficult and controversial.

It’s not exactly an edifying process is it?

Yeah, I think part of this is showing Republicans and Democrats reaching the same conclusions for very different reasons. You can like or dislike the reasons they used, but they’re focused on the agreement they reached.

Ben Brooks will be speaking at the Owen G Glenn Building, Auckland University, on Tuesday November 5 at 6.30pm. He received funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to travel to Texas.

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