Thursday, June 28, 2007

If ex-prisoners can build a country in Australia, why can't they be barbers in Texas?

Introducing Leigh Garrett from Adelaide Australia today at a Texas Public Policy Foundation luncheon, Center for Effective Justice Director Marc Levin pointed out that Australia's story as a former prison colony turned indpendent nation state demonstrates that ex-offenders can contribute to building a just and fair society. It's ironic, Levin pointed out, that in Texas ex-felons cannot be barbers but in Australia ex-felons built an entire nation of their own.

At the conference in Kerrville, Garrett said that restorative justice - which in the UK is called relational justice - is about "real life, real problems, and real solutions." More than most other participants in the conference, Garrett has participated in operationalizing restorative justice principles in ways that make me optimistic it might have applications for a system as massive and sprawling as ours here in Texas.

The former senior executive in Department of Correctional Services in South Australia began looking for alternatives to a failed criminal justice system in 1996. The state of South Australia has 1.5 million people, he said, and about 1.4 million live in Adelaide, about the same size city as San Antonio. Ultimately he joined a non-governmental organization, deciding it was easier to impact system from without than from within.

"Who owns justice?" Garrett asked. The police say "we do." The courts say "we do." The Corrections division, he said, doesn't really CARE - "we're just at the bottom end of the nightmare," he declared, and all they generally want is "give us more money." But justice, he said, doesn't belong to the state, it belongs to the citizenry. The government is supposed to exercise its authority on behalf of the people, but too often its aims and solutions are self aggrandizing, not focused on repairing damage.

He rightly pointed out that the traditional message the public gets about criminal justice is that "what we've got isn't working so we need more of it." That's certainly our attitude here, but by contrast the Australian system Garrett is criticizing is a fraction of the size of ours in Texas. About 70 people are incarcerated per 100,000 population in Australia, he said. For the United States that figure is around 700 per 100,000. For Texas the figure is about 1,035 per 100K population.

In other words, Australia incarcerates its citizenry at around 7% the rate we do in Texas. Now tell me, who do you suspect has the lower crime rates?

Garrett focused on improvements to the system for the victim, and said victim satisfaction for restorative justice programs in Adelaide were around 85%, compared to 16% for victims whose cases were processed through the regular justice system.

Some of Garrett's more concrete examples involved using sentencing circles to determine punishments and outcomes for offenders, particularly in lower level offenses but also in several vehicular manslaughter cases. The victim does not have to participate - they can always choose to have the case processed through the regular court system - and if the parties cannot agree on an outcome it falls back to the traditional court process, which gives teeth to the measure and strong incentives for offenders to comply. Indeed, said Garrett, both restitution and compliance with probation terms are higher for offenders whose sentences are determined through a conference with the victim.

As in other jurisdictions, the first area to embrace restorative practices in Adelaide was in the juvenile justice arena. In South Australia many low-level juvie cases are handled not through the courts but through agreements extracted through a police officer with youth and their parents that keeps them out of the system entirely. In addition, for 15 years they've had a juvenile diversion court for kids who've been cautioned several times or reneged on agreements with officers - they go through sentencing circle process that may include the victim but also people from the neighborhood and other stakeholders.

His organization does a lot of work in schools on bullying, he said. Most people in Australia, when asked, can tell stories of being bullied as a child, and research shows that when victimization has no other outlets, it often can cause its targets to victimize others later in life. That's probably true here, too, though I've never seen research on the subject - for me it was a fellow in 7th grade named Jimmy Don who was twice my size, sported a full beard by middle school, and whippped my ass with great regularity for most of a semester, to the point where I took different paths walking to school each morning to avoid him.

Garrett's group is working with schools to implement restorative justice responses to student misconduct from the earliest ages, hoping that when they're older an entire generation will have learned a different way of handling conflicts.

Garrett's organization also does post-release restorative conferencing, and he praised the healing effects of such encounters even when they have no impact on sentencing. In one case after such a post-release conference, a victim's mother told him, “I've unlocked myself from my own prison, one I've been in for 15 years.”

They've also influenced state government to use restorative policies in lieu of instead of a "three strikes and you're out" policy in public housing. Since most people in public housing are already poor, he pointed out, expelling them into the streets only postpones, usually for a short time, their entrance into the criminal justice system. Now they have a restoratively based dispute resolution process in place when neighbors can't get along.

The concepts of restorative justice, he said, are alive and well in Australia.

Garrett cautioned, though, that virtually all anti-crime resources go toward addressing offenders after they get into trouble, with not nearly enough focus on prevention, which he thinks is given short shrift.

I liked Garrett a lot - he was pragmatic but visionary, aggressive, but patient enough to adopt a long-term approach that from his account appears to be paying benefits. Impressive, inspiring work from down under. His account finally for me was a tipping point that made me think these ideas can be scaled up and successfully operationalized, not just promoted theoretically from the ivory tower.


Unknown said...

I'm sorry but when some bullies grow up they become police. They already have a history of dishonesty and kissing up to authority figures. They already have a history of violence and imposing values on others.
Let's face it: our criminal justice system is the adult version of bullying. Rich kids with authority figures as parents weren't bullied in school just as rich people in gated communities aren't victimized by criminals. It's all about putting ordinary people in their place and imposing order. It has never been about justice. Moguls seldom hired goons to deal with labor unions: they brought in police. Police are taxpayer funded goons for multinational corporations and their role has always been clear. This corruption we rail against as reformers is NOT anything new. Traditional political values require the use of police as an instrument to protect those with wealth from accountability.

Anonymous said...

I have to call bullshit on this comment,"Rich kids with authority figures as parents weren't bullied in school..." Yes, I was bullied. Yes, my father was an authority figure, and yes, I was bullied in school. Mercilessly, in fact. And, yes, quite a few of my schoolmates and their parents considered my family to be "rich." That's why I have always cared about those who are trampled upon: I was one of them. I grew up in chauffeur-driven cars, the best clothes, etc., and it sure as hell didn't protect me. My parents viewed my victim as me being weak, not as being outside the mold. They offered no protection whatsoever. I'm still looking for a way to pay my mortgage and champion the underdogs. Because I was one.

Anonymous said...

We sent our convicts to Australia and our religious fanatics to America....

billt said...

we lock up that many per 100k? sheesh!

jareskat said...

One little thought, from someone who lived in South Australia: Adelaide, ironically enough, was a "free-city," meaning it was developed by free Britians who were looking for a departure from the UK's normal landscape. It's one of the only places in Oz which wasn't originally settled by prisoners.