Wednesday, 16 September 2015

PS from America

The final leg of my Justice Reinvestment (JR) study tour took me to North Carolina where the Department of Public Safety provided a valuable insight into how their 2011 JR Act has brought down prison numbers and taken small but important steps to rebalance corrections away from incarceration and towards community based sanctions. There will be more of that in the report I’m preparing for Transform Justice who have commissioned the follow up to the paper I produced last year. I was struck today however by what has not changed and how in some respects at least the philosophical underpinnings of the American approach contrast so starkly with our own.

There is rightly growing concern in England and Wales about the criminal court charge and how it places a simply unaffordable burden on poor defendants and incentivises them to enter a guilty plea. When I mentioned it, American colleagues couldn't see what the fuss was about. 

In North Carolina, defendants are expected to pay not only a court cost ($180) but fees for time they spend in jail before trial- anything between $10 and $40 a day. If they have been represented by a public defender, they must reimburse the state for the attorney’s costs - $60 for an hours work in court, nearer $1000 if the case goes to trial.

But this is just the start. If they get Probation, offenders are expected to pay a supervision fee of $40 a month. If their sentence involves community service they pay a $250 fee while house arrest will set them back a one off bill of $90 plus $4.37 per day. CAM – Continuous Alcohol Monitoring in the form of a sobriety tag -runs closer to $15 per day- unsurprisingly it’s seldom used. Fees for courses required of those who drive while intoxicated are set by the providers at roughly $300-400 for 20 hours.

As in England and Wales, offenders may be fined (fines help to pay for the public schools system) while restitution is commonly ordered too- whatever it takes “to make the victim whole”. This will be the reimbursement of the value of stolen or damaged property and medical and counselling costs in cases of personal harm. This can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Failure to pay these sums represents a violation of probation. Offenders cannot complete their orders until their account is clear. Not surprisingly, I heard that many low risk offenders who otherwise fully comply with probation reach the end of their orders in arrears. This is in spite of help they receive with budgeting and scheduling payments. Fortunately, judges seem to show some sense, prioritising restitution and suspending or writing off the other debts where failing to pay is not “wilful” and where efforts have been made to pay at least something.  But owing money to the justice system is surely an unnecessary block to rehabilitation. Up to half of people on probation have no driving license- it has often  been forfeited and they simply cannot afford  to clear the many debts they need to in order to get it back. In a country with very limited public transport, this is a huge disadvantage.

There is, I suppose, an argument for this approach- offenders have to be accountable and should literally pay for the consequences of their actions. It’s not the balance of responsibilities allocated between individual and the state that we are used to in the UK or indeed in Europe.  But it could well prove attractive to a conservative mindset which looks to roll back further the frontiers of state, shift costs from government to the citizen  and emphasise individual accountability irrespective of  social circumstances. I hope it's not an approach that Mr Gove finds attractive when he visits the US later this month..

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