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Interview: Jerry Madden, former Republican Texas state representative -

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JOHN BARRON, PRESENTER: In the United States, President Barack Obama has been driving reforms to the country's prison system which is suffering from chronic overcrowding with more than 2 million of its citizens now behind bars. Barack Obama became the first US President to visit a federal prison in July when he travelled to a facility in Oklahoma. He spoke with six inmates and that experience convinced him that the system had to be changed.

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: We've got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving in the way we are.

JOHN BARRON: So this week President Obama met with over 100 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and attorneys-general from right across the country at the White House and there has been uniform agreement that thousands of prisoners considered at low risk of becoming repeat offenders should now be released, while more than 40,000 more will have their sentences reduced. For years, the tough-on-crime approach from US politicians led to mandatory minimum sentences that are now being widely criticised. It also led to serious overcrowding in jails like San Quentin in California where often four inmates or more shared a cell designed for just two.

Now, consider this: 30 years ago there were 500,000 people behind bars in America. Today there are 2.2 million, or put another way, the United States is home to 5 per cent of the world's population, but 25 per cent of the world's prisoners. Every year the US spends $80 billion just to keep its people locked up.

Former Texas State representative Jerry Madden is here in Australia to participate in the Australian community support organisation's criminal justice conference in Victoria. The Republican law-maker saved the lone star State about $2 billion a year by closing prisons down while also reducing the re-offending rate. Jerry Madden joins us from our studio in Melbourne.

Jerry welcome to 'Lateline'. That was quite a trick you pulled off in Texas there, you closed down prisons, you spent less money and the crime rate still went down. What was your secret?

JERRY MADDEN, FORMER TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE: John what we did is first of all we started stuff in a very bipartisan manner. When I started out - I'm not a lawyer, no legal background at all and I had never been on a committee and the Speaker of the House called me in and he said, "Jerry, you are chairman of, corrections." And I asked him what did he want me to do and he gave me one statement that changed my life. He said, "Don't build new prisons they cost too much," which was the task I then had as a non-lawyer to figure out, "Well, how do we do that?" So that's the task we did, that's what we went and did we looked at changing the directions so he that we didn't have more people coming back into the system, but in fact could get them out.

JOHN BARRON: Easier said than done, of course.

JERRY MADDEN: Yes.

JOHN BARRON: And it was a not inconsiderable amount of money you did need to not build the prisons. You had to put that money into programs to keep people out of jail?

JERRY MADDEN: What happened to us in our 2007 legislation, they came in with a projection that said they needed three prisons and it would cost $530 million. We had done our forecast and developed our programs said we needed about $240 million and we could keep that prison population from growing, not going to have 17,700 more people, but were going to have a flat or in fact a reduced prison population by spending significantly less than what was in it for building the new prisons, but a rather substantial amount to change the direction and drug treatment, things like that.

JOHN BARRON: Tell us how you got it done because you say there was bipartisan consensus around it even if Republicans and Democrats were coming at it from slightly different perspectives, maybe economic on the Republican side; more focused on the social justice aspect on the Democrats side, but how did you convince the government who has been elected for generations in Texas for executing people, being tough on crime to say, "Let's spend the money elsewhere?"?

JERRY MADDEN: Well, first of all I found a partner, who was of the other party than I am. I am the conservative Republican he was a moderate Democrat, he was the senator, I was the House member. He had a great deal of experience in criminal justice but hadn't been able to get many of the things done and I was the conduit for actually getting those things done and passed in our sessions of the legislation particularly in 2007. So, we put together a bunch of ideas, we brought together a lot of talent, a lot of knowledge, a lot of statisticians, data, facts, and we basically built our case on facts and information, and did not on opinions.

JOHN BARRON: One factor does remain, though Jerry is that Texas executes more Americans than any other State. Being so, I guess harsh at the top end of the crime spectrum, did that give you a certain amount of cover to say, "Well, we could go easy on some of the minor crimes, the non- violent crimes, the drug-related crimes."?

JERRY MADDEN: We really didn't use that as an approach. What we used as an approach was we had think tanks, conservative and people that were Liberal, but when we put them together, they had 80 per cent of the things they talked about, they agreed on. We took those 80 per cent and built our whole reform package basically killing offer the 80 per cent. We did not bring in those things that we knew were controversial, we did not bring in things from either the left or the right that they would be so controversial that they would in fact kill the ideas we were having in the legislature, but that allowed us to put together legislation that was passed.

JOHN BARRON: And we've seen some similar approaches being taken at a state level elsewhere in the United States since then, because of the successes you had in a budgetary sense and the crime rate, what do you make of the progress that is now being made in Washington DC? Not a lot happens in Washington DC, but it looks as though bipartisan breaking out around it there, too?

JERRY MADDEN: What happens is there is a conservative leadership going on that has taken this issue and made it a part of what we are doing. I'm part of the right on crime movement in Texas and basically that's the conservative voice for criminal justice reform in the United States and basically what we have done is taken the Texas message and spread that, as you pointed out, to several states.

Those states have brought the ideas through to their legislators which said these, you know guys in Texas and we in our State have gotten these things right and you guys can come along in Washington and actually follow what we've done, and we set the example, because the State - basically the trial area for different ideas. They are a great sounding board, a great area for experimentation and our states have done this experimentation and we can now say to the politicians in Washington, whether Right or Left, if you guys get together, that you can in fact create this major change that can happen in the criminal justice reform.

JOHN BARRON: Of course, Jerry, you can't talk about incarceration in the US or indeed here in Australia without addressing the issue of race. In the United States, if you are a black man, you are six times more likely to be in the criminal justice system than if you are a white man. It's an astonishing statistic. Has that changed under the reforms that you brought in, in Texas?

JERRY MADDEN: It is starting to, but what we are basically doing is reducing the overall population, when you do that, you reduce the number of African-Americans, but you also reduce the number of Hispanics, and you reduce the number of white prisoners. All of them are basically falling into that category and they are all seeing a total reduction. As a percentage, it has not changed the percentages in Texas. It's about a one-third, one-third, one-third mix that we've had and that still continues to be the case.

JOHN BARRON: There has been a move away, it seems from some of the three-strikes and mandatory sentencing policies that were big in the late '80s and 90s, one of the drivers of that of course was the epidemic of crack cocaine. And that has been criticised in itself, the laws against crack cocaine rather than powdered cocaine, crack cocaine more popular amongst African-Americans, it was seen as an inherently racist approach to enforcement. Are those kinds of inequalities in the law now being ironed out?

JERRY MADDEN: Particularly in the federal legislation, they already, they did that, they changed the mixture and the values that were there, and yes, those are being ironed out, and I think that they will have some impact over a period of time.
They won't occur instantaneously as if anything happens in this criminal justice field, it doesn't happen overnight it takes quite a while to get the information, the data, to see what's really going to work, but the important thing we had and we stress was to make sure things work, make sure we had the data that indicated there are going to be successful, not just somebody's idea, but in fact a well thought out, well documented result that we are going to get that would be favourable.

JOHN BARRON: What's your message to law-makers and law-enforcers here in Australia, Jerry, where we have if anything more mandatory sentences particularly at the lower end, 17-year-old kids going to jail for stealing a packet of Minties, that kind of thing is still happening in this country?

JERRY MADDEN: I gave a message to the people at the conference, that was basically three things that I think Victoria and Australia ought to do. First of all, is make sure you have a clearly define mission for what they are trying to do in the reforms, define it so that everyone knows it and they will basically be on the same page as to what they are trying to get done. Second of all, make sure you have data. Make sure you have good, solid data that you've got and the third thing I recommended was that I recommended to the most of the states which they have done, is create some sort of commission, a criminal justice review commission that looks at the whole criminal justice system and makes recommendations to the legislature and to the executive branch as to what the drivers are in your system, so that's that is where you can make the biggest changes, is in those particular things that drive the overall prison population.

JOHN BARRON: And the bottom line is, the take-away message is that if you spend more on rehabilitation and less on incarceration, you can lower the crime rate and keep people out of jail?

JERRY MADDEN: The great thing that we've done in Texas is that our crime rate is lower than it's been since 1968 for property crimes, 1972 for those more violent crimes, it's continuing to drop, we are having fewer arrests, we've had parole revocations are way down, probation revocations are down it's just a - and we closed three prisons just as a minor thing.

JOHN BARRON: Good to talk to you Jerry thanks for talking to us, Jerry.

JERRY MADDEN: Thank you.

JOHN BARRON: That's all the time we have for 'Lateline'.