It took the US prison population less than 40 years to rise from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million people today. America has become the undisputed global leader in the rate at which it imprisons its citizens, easily outdistancing other high incarcerators such as Russia, Iran and China. Yet, according to a report just published by the respected Pew Centre, harsher sentencing and growing prison numbers are "saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford, and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime".
Here heads are turned to the American primaries as the election roadshow rolls on. What we don't see, or hear about, are the millions who will not be voting for Clinton, Obama or McCain - who will not, in fact, be voting at all. In many American states not only are people stripped of their voting rights as they are jailed but they are also permanently disenfranchised on release. Human rights lawyer Bryan Stephenson, member of Penal Reform International's American board, estimates that around one-third of black men in Alabama are no longer eligible to vote. Last time round, the Democrat's failure to right the wrong of disenfranchisement, which they had identified but classed as a low level priority, is thought to have cost them the pivotal Florida election and then the country.
So why does our government, committed as it is to social inclusion, turn for ideas to America where excessive levels of incarceration are creating and maintaining a growing underclass? Why seek answers from a country which jails one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 and for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine. Admittedly, in the main, British delegations are studying ways in which states are trying to dig themselves out of a hole: sentencing commissions to regulate prison numbers in Minnesota, prisoner re-entry in California, the start of Atlantic Philanthropies' work to examine the damaging imprisonment of the mentally ill, the success of Red Hook drugs court and widespread attempts at justice re-investment in Kansas, Texas and other states, diverting prison monies into effective community solutions to crime.
Nonetheless, rather than spending much time looking for answers across the Atlantic, politicians could look closer to home for solutions in the UK and among our European neighbours. It would be useful to look to countries that have set out to use imprisonment sparingly, like Finland and Denmark, or to Germany which locks up 92 people per 100,000 compared to England and Wales, where a frenzied prison building programme is set to propel prison numbers to a shaming 178 per 100,000. In Scotland new ministers are working systematically to reduce prison numbers and to rebalance the criminal justice system.
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Last week, in a shadow green paper on prison reform (pdf), the Conservative leader acknowledged the need to reduce prison numbers but restricted his party to doing so "in the long term in the only acceptable way by driving down re-offending". Meanwhile, he would be prepared to build a further 5,000 places on top of Labour's promised 15,000. When it comes to prisons, politicians of all parties fall too easily into costly macho posturing.
Only a few months ago, at the Local Government Association conference in Birmingham, David Cameron said he was not prepared to tolerate what he described as: "a depressing journey ... of three-letter acronyms from an EBD unit to a PRU. From the PRU to a YOI. And finally to an HMP." This would be an excellent place to start by responding to the needs of troubled young people before they get sucked into the youth justice system for the first time, as an extraordinary 93,730 children did in 2006-7. Some time ago a young woman in prison told me:
"We've all been through social services, foster [homes], children's homes, getting kicked out of school, secure units ... I'm sure we've all been through that road, it's like a journey and we've all collected our tickets along the way."
For 15 years, successive governments have allowed prisons to rot in a policy vacuum. Now the Tories have turned the spotlight on our most neglected least visible public service, Gordon Brown must reach beyond party politics and establish a royal commission on the nature and purpose of imprisonment. This would be a disciplined, independent group with knowledge and integrity and a mandate, not to wring hands about the mess we're in, but with the potential to relocate prison as a genuine last resort. This would enable prison to be placed at the far end of an integrated framework for the development of sensible, long-term social and criminal justice policy. The commission would heed, but probably not dwell on, a timely warning from America.
Juliet Lyon is director of the Prison Reform Trust.
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