One of the immutable aspects of the progressive mind is its refusal to progress beyond whichever warm and fuzzy nostrum first suggested itself as the solution to any particular problem. The Carbon Tax is the most recent example – the fact that a slug intended to change behaviour was immediately mitigated by politically motivated handouts intended to minimise that impact raised no eyebrows amongst its supporters. It was the idea of a planet-saving tax that is the article of their faith, the real world utility of that beloved initiative being entirely beside the point.
If common sense fares well next weekend and the polls are vindicated at the ballot box, that particular example of the left’s cognitive dissonance will be both repudiated and repealed. But there are other tenets of modern liberalism that continue to thrive, despite being rejected at any number of elections. Like Patterson’s Curse, these notions tend to be attractive from a distance, toxic when swallowed and almost impossible to uproot. How to punish criminals – or not punish them, if truth be told – is perhaps the most durable of them all.
The few remaining readers of The Sunday Age who are brighter than Earth Hour saw yet another recitation of the “root causes” catechism this morning, courtesy of state political editor Farrah Tomazin’s weekly column (emphasis added):
“As Victoria heads towards a state election next year, it is time to reframe the debate. The last thing we need is another law-and-order auction based on expensive, punitive ideas. The emphasis should be on justice reinvestment - directing funds into programs that prevent criminal behaviour and tackle generational disadvantage rather than just the consequences of crime.
If it sounds like the bleeding obvious, it is.”
Obvious to whom, one wondered, only to have that question immediately answered: obvious to former state attorney general Rob Hulls, who found refuge in academia after his Labor government’s defeat in 2010 and now heads RMIT University’s new Centre for Innovative Justice.
“You can't just jail your way to a safer community,” Hulls advises, and. Tomazin concedes that this might be a hard sell, what with memories of Jill Meagher’s murder still fresh in the public mind. The ABC employee’s killer, the multiple rapist and bash artist Adrian Bayley, was allowed to remain on the streets, despite already being on parole, after being found guilty of a brutal and unprovoked attack on a Geelong man who was doing nothing more offensive than eating his dinner al fresco. Many Victorians are still wondering how such a travesty could ever have come to pass.
The magistrate in that case, Ron Saines, former partner in a Trades Hall-associated law firm specialising in workers’ comp cases, was a 2002 Hulls appointment, but Victoria’s ex-attorney-general diplomatically neglected to mention the beak or his pedigree. Had he done so, Age readers (the brighter ones, anyway) might have surmised that it would indeed be possible to jail your way to a safer community, at least as far as unaccompanied women leaving Brunswick pubs late at night are concerned.
To support the alleged benefits of giving criminals earlier access to the streets, Tomasin cites what she presents as the Texas model.
“If we need evidence of what works, the conservative US state of Texas makes a compelling case. Not long ago, the prison population in Texas was projected to grow by 17,700 people within five years, which would have required about $5 billion to be spent on new jails.
What did the US Republican government do? It directed more money towards programs that tackled disadvantage, kept young people in school for longer, and helped parolees curb their reoffending.As a result, crime reduced significantly, and some prisons even closed because demand dropped.”
We know that summation of Texas justice comes straight from Hulls, who used the same numbers – and very nearly identical words – in an Age opinion piece published back in May. Unless Tomazin is angling to win a re-cycling award, she might want to fact-check anything and everything Hulls says or writes from now on, especially when presenting his unattributed cut-and-pastes as impartial fact.
The truth about crime and punishment in Texas is a little more subtle than Hulls would have us believe. Certainly, as the prison population witnessed its slight decrease, overall crime statistics also declined – but not across the board. As the Texas Department of Public Safety noted when releasing its 2012 numbers, the latest available,
“While we are pleased that the overall index crime rate has decreased somewhat over the last year, it is concerning that at the same time Texas experienced an increase in the actual number of violent crimes,” said DPS Director Steven McCraw.
“Moreover, we are still relying on a crime index reporting program from the 1930s that does not reflect an accurate picture of the threats posed by criminal enterprise organizations currently operating in our state. Drug smuggling, human trafficking, extortion, corruption, bribery, money laundering and kidnapping are just a few of the crimes committed by these ruthless organizations that are not reflected in current UCR data.”
The FBI numbers similarly refute the idea that reducing prison populations persuades criminals to change their ways. Again, the numbers show a slight decrease in some offences, but they also reflect an increased incidence of “murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault” in 20 of the state’s 33 surveyed jurisdictions. Where declines in those categories were observed, they tended to be statistically insignificant. Fort Worth, for example, saw violent crime in 2012 drop from 4579 incidents to 4516, which is probably not the landmark improvement Hulls would wish to showcase.
And there is one other aspect of Texas justice neither Hulls nor Tomazin felt worthy of mention. While the state’s inmate population has declined slightly, from the 163,503 in 2000 to around 152,000 as of yearend 2012, authorities do not expect the trend to be sustained. As the state legislature’s Budget Board puts it:
Adult Incarceration: The Texas adult incarceration population is projected to remain relatively flat in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 and begin a gradual increase through fiscal year 2018 … the incarcerated population is projected to increase to 153,885 by the end of the 2014–15 biennium, and to 156,877 by the end of fiscal year 2018.
Not to be a nitpicker, but the Hulls/Tomazin remedy – the “emphasis should be on justice reinvestment - directing funds into programs that prevent criminal behaviour and tackle generational disadvantage rather than just the consequences of crime” – differs somewhat from the measures outlined by Texas lawmaker Jerry Madden, a Republican and architect of his state’s reforms, during an April appearance on Lateline. Rather than round up the usual suspect clichés, Madden is quite specific in urging beefed-up parole administrators, swift action when conditions of early release are violated, and a sharper focus on drug-addicted and mentally disturbed inmates. All of which sounds a lot more like old-fashioned nous than Hull’s rather vague desire to see kids remain longer in school.
Just by the way, would that “generational disadvantage” include among its victims the late Jason and Mark Moran, products and victims of Melbourne’s underworld aristocracy, ice dealers, killers and, poor underpriveleged lads, Essendon Grammar old boys? For those interested in what is really happening in Texas and other US states, Washington Monthly magazine recently published a long and fascinating report on the push by conservatives to reform prisons, including an interview with Madden.
There is one aspect of the Texas prison system which would be well worth imitating, however: what it costs to keep a villain behind bars. According to Tomazin’s Age column, “Victorians spend about $240 a day - or $87,600 a year - to house one prisoner.” In the Lone Star State, locking up a thug ran to a more affordable $21,390 in 2010 (see Figure 4) and is unlikely to be much more expensive today. Could it be that the same mentality which looks to remedy those “root causes” long after the twig has been bent also makes prison life more congenial than genuine deterrence suggests it needs to be? Drug kingpin Carl Williams was beaten to death with an iron bar taken from a piece of gym equipment in a maximum security unit. He might yet be alive if prisoners still broke rocks to occupy their time, as any sledgehammer needed for that public-service homicide would have been locked up and safely out reach when prisoners were returned to their cells. They would have been too tired to murder each other in any case. Far too tired.
As a charter member of the caring-industrial complex and preacher of the root-causes gospel, it is perhaps only natural that Hulls would interpret the slight Texas prison-population decline as the consequence of the sort of policies and social engineering he favours. To people of his sort, it is always the idea, which in this case would be guaranteed to draw the enthusiastic support of social workers, teachers union types, lawyers, judges, specialists in Aboriginal excuse-making and other justice-system hangers-on. Had he been of a different persuasion he might just as easily have pointed to Texas' enthusiasm for capital punishment and the largely unfettered right of unconvicted citizens to buy and bear arms.
But modern liberals don’t think that way, to the extent they think at all. Theirs is a form of tunnel vision perfectly captured by a thoroughly baffled New York Times report that appeared in 2004 beneath this headline: “Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates.”
Cause and effect -- it’s a concept they find as difficult to grasp as the idea that bad men doing irksome penance for long periods behind high walls are most unlikely to find time or opportunity for raping and killing. .