Less prison, better prevention of crime

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Professor John Braithwaite. Photo by Darren Boyd.
Professor John Braithwaite. Photo by Darren Boyd.

Between 1910 and 1990 Australia had an imprisonment rate at approximately half what it is today.

Punitive thinking led to the tragedy of massive public investment in prison building in an era when the evidence suggested this was not an effective way of reducing crime.

A shift of investment from prisons to evidence-based crime prevention can bequeath a safer society to our children. When I was a young criminologist, the evidence seemed to be that better policing policies made little difference to the crime rate. Now we have superior evidence from randomised controlled trials showing, for example, that violence can be sharply reduced by police targeting hot-spots of violence.

Another area of evidence-based crime prevention where we have made inroads is restorative justice. Restorative justice is the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. Restorative justice empowers victims and their supporters to meet with offenders and their supporters to discuss what should be done to repair the harm and prevent future offending.

Two of my colleagues, Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang, ran experiments on the effectiveness of restorative justice compared to traditional processing through criminal trials. Early success in Canberra resulted in British Government grants of $20 million to conduct many further trials in the UK. Randomised trials – as in tossing a coin to see who goes into the new program – are now underway in eight Chinese cities and have occurred around the world. Contrary to intuitions that restorative justice should be restricted to minor property offences, it turns out that it makes the biggest difference with serious and violent crime.

The benefits of restorative justice for the victim are even greater. These include reduced post traumatic stress symptoms and diminished fear, anger, hurt and vengefulness. The victims also report heightened satisfaction that they have experienced a meaningful form of justice. This is not to say it always works; we still have much to do to unravel contexts where restorative justice backfires.

We continue to invest in basic research on what makes an innovation like restorative justice tick. ANU researcher Nathan Harris has shown that when criminal offenders experience remorse in restorative justice they come to the conclusion the people they love the most disapprove of what they have done and want them to change. Disapproval of their act is communicated while proving how much they love them as a person, their respect and support for them. Even perceived disapproval by others who the offender likes quite a lot makes no difference. Harris hates it when I call this his ‘all you need is love result’.

Anti-bullying programs in schools are another area where research has shown the path to a less violent society. As with Harris’ work, Eliza Ahmed has shown that shame acknowledgement and reintegrative shaming in families reduces the incidence of both being a bully and being a victim of bullying in schools and workplaces. An effect size three times higher was the experience of forgiveness in families. Children and adults who have learnt, in their home lives, to forgive and be forgiven are much less likely to become bullies. An age-old biblical teaching you might say. Yet in the West, we have become cynical about forgiveness, afraid to consider its benefits for victims and criminals. We surely must be careful not to demand forgiveness. One reason is that forgiveness only prevents crime, only helps victims, when victims voluntarily choose forgiveness as their gift to the offender.

Our hope is that by being evidence-based on such matters, policymakers can be convinced that excessively tough justice that is expensive to deliver is not as effective as emotionally intelligent justice.

Evidence-based rehabilitation programs for criminals can also make a huge difference. Equally, programs where young offenders visit tough men in tough prisons increase reoffending.

Some of the most effective forms of crime prevention, like investing in the educational development of poor children are costly, but nevertheless efficient because of other benefits they bring to an economy. Certain crime prevention initiatives have proved profitable for the Australian economy.

A collaboration between the ANU Centre for Tax System Integrity and the Australian Taxation Office showed that a responsive regulatory strategy for prevention-enforcement against fraudulent shifting of corporate profits to tax havens and nations with lower tax rates than Australia brought in an extra billion dollars in tax to our nation for each million spent on the program.

My research argues that smart regulation of US housing loan fraud in the mid-2000s could have eliminated that proximate cause of the Global Financial Crisis. This too might have been cost-effective crime prevention!

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U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
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PubMed Central

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U.S National Library of Medicine
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