The United States tops the worldwide rank of incarceration. Its criminal justice system holds approximately 0.65 per cent of the US population in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities and local jails. Even China, which has a population more than four times larger than the United States, has fewer people in jail, with an incarceration rate of only 0.12 per cent.
While Australia’s incarcerate population is significantly smaller than that of the United States, its incarceration rate — currently at 0.17 per cent — remains 18 per cent higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average.
Contributing to the incarceration rates in Australia and the United States is the persistent challenge of recidivism. Almost half of US federal offenders released in 2005 were arrested again by 2013. In Australia, a total of 44.8 per cent of prisoners released in in 2014-2015 returned to corrective services within two years. In comparison, fellow OECD countries Norway and Denmark have overall recidivism rates of, respectively, 20 per cent and 24 per cent within a two-year period. The high level of recidivism in both the United States and Australia suggests a failure in the criminal justice systems to improve the behaviour of those who enter them.
In the United States, White House adviser Jared Kushner is pushing a bill aiming to establish training programs, expand access to education and vocational training, and allow “well-behaved” offenders to serve out their final sentenced years in rehabilitation centres. This is a departure from current practices as it would allow USD$50 million of annual funding for prison programming and change the way good-behaviour sentencing is calculated, resulting in the release of 4,000 inmates. Studies show academic and vocational programs reduce recidivism by 40 per cent and better prepare inmates for integration into society. Studies have also shown that employment after release is 13 per cent higher for inmates who participated in academic and vocational programs than those who did not, with those who participated being 28 per cent more likely to be employed after release over those who did not.
While this initiative is a step towards reform, rehabilitation programs that address underlying emotional factors for all inmates — instead of only the “well-behaved” — have not been considered. Research shows a significant reduction in reoffending if an inmate undertakes a relevant treatment program (i.e. anger management). Prison SMART, a behavioural and counselling rehabilitation program run by a US non-profit organisation, is one such program that could have a positive impact if it were available to all inmates. SMART has assisted 700,000 inmates across 60 countries, resulting in 71 per cent of offenders reporting that they could better control their temper, 62 per cent of offenders saying they were less easily irritated, and 79 per cent feeling more able to cope with challenges.
In Australia, the government’s anti-recidivism efforts have routinely focused on correctional rehabilitation, including programs that tackle motivation, cognitive abilities, sexual offences, and violence. While such programs are effective in addressing many of the offenders’ core challenges, they lack in an area the United States shows a strength. An Australian government 2015 report found that work opportunities for former prisoners had declined by 10 per cent since 2011, despite the increased population of those incarcerated and the fact that there is a correlation between employment and a reduced chance of reoffending. Unfortunately, efforts to address this challenge appear at a standstill as Australian Parliament has not proposed any substantial judicial reforms since 2015.
There are lessons to be learned from both jurisdictions. The United States could consider implementing more behavioural and counselling programs for all inmates, while Australia could revisit reforms that would introduce more educational and vocational programs within its system. Both nations face an opportunity to address the current missteps and pursue policies that will advance effective and efficient criminal justice systems.