Chief UK Court Official Looks To Texas For Lessons On Prison Reform

By Paul Gaita 01/14/16

One British official wants to model their reform efforts after the Lone Star State's drug courts.


Michael Gove, the incumbent Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice under British Prime Minister David Cameron, has launched an investigation into establishing a court program based on Texas’s drug courts that would significantly reduce the number of inmates serving time for low-level drug and alcohol-related offenses in U.K. prisons.

Gove, who visited Texas in 2014, wants to adopt a system similar to the Lone Star drug courts, which has cut prison numbers in that state by sending offenders to rehabilitation programs to deal with drug and alcohol issues, and mental health problems. Participants must attend meetings and meet goals set by judges or face incarceration. The drug court system, which began in Miami’s Dade County in 1989, has been adopted in numerous states, and have posted impressive numbers in regard to recidivism rates with participants, with 75% of graduates remaining arrest-free for at least two years after leaving the program.

With prisons in England and Wales near capacity—data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) shows that state and private facilities were 97% full in December 2015—a court program based on the Star system has considerable appeal for Gove and his fellow Conservative Party members. In a speech before the Magistrate's Association last month, Gove said, “I was impressed by the potential of these problem-solving courts to crime reduction and personal redemption. I know all of you care a great deal about the rehabilitation of the people who appear in front of you in court, and want to play a bigger part in that process.”

The investigative committee, which met for the first time this month, is comprised of MoJ and judiciary officials, as well as prison reform and legislative experts, and is believed to have the support of both David Cameron and Chancellor George Osbourne, who heads Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Among the committee’s key hurdles is to gain the support of Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, whose involvement may help to sway members of the judiciary who do not believe that the drug court will have any impact. Financing such a program is also of concern to supporters, especially in the face of ongoing austerity cuts that have reduced or even shuttered numerous publicly funded services.

Andrew Nielson, director of campaigns at The Howard League for Penal Reform, noted, “These courts are certainly one aspect of how you would reform the system, though I don’t think it would do that on its own. The big [issue] is these courts would have to link into services somehow, and of course, there have been cuts to local government services.”

The precedent for such courts is not positive. In 2013, costs brought to a close a well-regarded community court in North Liverpool, which handled local youth court and drug and alcohol services, despite the support of area police and crime commissioners and the city’s mayor.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.