JOHN Wayne would be spitting in the dust. Texas, the home ground of American rough justice, has gone soft on crime. Twenty years ago, zero tolerance swept the US, epitomised in Republican Clayton Williams's pledge that if elected Texan governor in 1990 (he lost), he would have first time drug offenders ''bustin' rocks''.
But even in Texas things get complicated once the TV cameras have turned away and politicians find themselves governing in the real world.
The lock-'em-up policies of the 1980s and 1990s led to rising prisoner numbers and broken budgets. Rather than putting an end to crime, prisons seemed to be incubating it.
Now, reduced sentences for drug offences and a big boost to job training and rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders are among recent Texan reforms also being reproduced in conservative states, including Louisiana and Indiana, across the US.
Like Clayton Williams, Victorian Liberal leader Ted Baillieu knew well that a simple tough-on-crime message would play well in short media grabs at polling time last year. It was a core theme used by the Coalition to launch a barrage of law and order policies, including boosting police recruitment, bail reform, and the abolition of home detention and suspended sentences. There would be literally ''zero tolerance''. ''Offenders who do the crime will do the time.''
Seven months later, honeymoon over, the Coalition is facing its own real-world dilemma: getting tough is more costly than it expected or, maybe, admitted. Possibly even imagined.
Paradoxically, given its history, Australia has a relatively low rate of incarceration - indigenous Australians being an exception. Victoria has a lower rate still, with 105 citizens per 100,000 behind bars compared with the national average of 170. Victoria has just 13 prisons - New South Wales has 58 - that accommodate 4307 male and 311 female prisoners. Former Pentridge prison chaplain turned Melbourne University academic Peter Norden warns that this ''great achievement'' is at risk of being squandered, along with hundreds of millions of dollars of scarce public funds - money needed for services such as schools and sports facilities that might help keep young Victorians out of trouble, and jail.
''Research has repeatedly shown that an increase in prison cells is not going to improve the social cohesion of the community. In fact, it is a direct attack against social cohesion,'' says Norden.
For supposed straight-shooters, the Coalition in government is reluctant to divulge details about the full implications of its justice agenda. But Corrections Minister Andrew McIntosh does acknowledge that the platform - which also includes 100 armed train guards at stations, mandatory sentences for serious violence, and baseline sentencing - will lead to more prisoners. ''Of course that [Coalition policy] meant there was clearly going to be an increase in the number of prison beds that we would have to provide,'' he told The Age recently.
But neither the minister nor the Justice Department will release projections for prisoner numbers under those policies, despite acknowledging their existence.
The Coalition had promised 500 extra beds at existing prisons, conservatively estimating the cost at $268 million. It has also vowed to end overcrowding in prisons, a commitment that will add to both the level and urgency of spending required. That promise was repeated in last month's budget, which earmarked just $35 million for the first 108 of those beds.
But a surprise inclusion in the budget was a commitment to also build a new men's prison of unspecified location, size, model, or cost. And it is this decision - revealing that existing demand on prisons was greater than the Coalition had accounted for in its campaign commitments - that should ring alarm bells for Ted Baillieu and Victorians. Particularly as Coalition policies are about to exacerbate that situation, considerably.
Seeking to explain its stance, McIntosh says the Coalition was not fully aware of the significant pressure already faced by the prison system under Labor, especially in men's prisons. As a result, he says, the responsible thing to do was review the Coalition strategy of simply adding accommodation to existing facilities, and acknowledge that prisons may require ''even further expansion''. To that end, the government allocated $2 million for a business case for a new men's complex in last month's budget. It could have saved its money. The business case had already been done - under the Brumby government.
While the conservatives had pursued the Bracks/Brumby government for being soft on crime, it had, in its final five years in particular, yielded to Coalition and media pressure for a tougher line on crime, especially on serious assault, sex and drug offences.
The political spats in Victoria over who is harder or softer on crime are typical of what ex-soldier and West Australian Labor MP Paul Papalia describes as Australia's ''juvenile'' debate. ''So you have a really childish squabble over who's toughest, instead of a serious, grown-up discussion whereby the most important question is, 'Is what we're doing working?''' he told the ABC in February.
The hardening of Labor policy led to a sharp upturn in prisoner numbers in 2006, with the overall prison population having grown by almost 50 per cent over the past decade, triple the rate of general population growth. Female prisoner numbers grew by 68 per cent in the decade to June 2010, women with gambling and drug problems, Vietnamese women in particular, accounting for much of the increase.
Behind the scenes, the Justice Department last year warned that the state's prisons were stretched to breaking point, with overcrowding adding to the risk of violence to inmates and staff. Hundreds of temporary beds had been added to cells meant for one inmate, and football ovals and other recreation areas had been been built over, exacerbating tensions among prisoners.
In 2008, the government agreed to support a 350-bed medium security prison at Ararat, and additions to existing prisons. But leaked documents show that for three years Labor baulked at the department's big requests - a large new men's prison and, in 2010, a 550-bed women's prison.
Why was neither prison either funded or even publicly discussed last year? ''Simple,'' says a senior Labor figure involved. ''There's votes in being tough on crime; there's no votes in prisons.''
Corrections Victoria compiled a business case for a new men's prison: a 700 to 800-bed, multi-purpose, maximum and medium security complex to be among the largest jails in the state. The capital costs alone were estimated late last year at about $550 million. The cost of the proposed 550-bed women's multi-purpose precinct would be similar. Both were being proposed as public-private partnerships. The nominal cost of the two PPPs alone would run into billions over the typical 25-year life of such projects. That would have been on top of yearly spending on prisons that is already pushing up to $600 million a year.
While Victoria has a comparatively low imprisonment rate, the cost per inmate - about $300 a day in 2010, including capital and operating costs - is higher here than all other states and territories except Tasmania and the ACT. The Coalition estimates its policies will require an additional 500 beds in its first term, suggesting an increase of 1000 over a decade. This is on top of confidential projections from last year of a growth rate of 40 to 50 per cent to 2020. Such numbers point to prison spending unparalleled in recent Victorian history.
In interviews with McIntosh and Corrections Commissioner Bob Hastings, the question of costs is sidestepped on the grounds that planning is still in its early stages. McIntosh says he has no knowledge of plans for new prisons developed under Labor, especially any that might have gone to cabinet. He chooses not to comment on the high costs of the 350-bed Ararat prison now under construction. But The Saturday Age believes that the nominal cost of the project is about $1.1 billion over 25 years.
Given the size and cost of projects proposed by Corrections Victoria under Labor, Ararat in particular, taxpayers have good reason to be anxious about the business case now being finalised for the new men's facility under a get-tough Coalition.
McIntosh says the size, location and delivery model will be ''developed in isolation'' by Corrections Victoria (within the Justice Department) bureaucrats. ''I won't have any direct input as to say where, what or how. This is a business case that they are developing. That business case will literally dictate the outcome of what the government does in relation to building a new male prison.'' On the question of a new women's prison, he says he does not foresee spending on a major new facility in the Coalition's first term, but does not rule it out.
In an interview with The Saturday Age, Hastings confirmed that planning for a women's facility was continuing. ''Down the track it would be appropriate to consider what a new women's world would look like.''
Peter Norden despairs at a lack of ''rationality'' in justice and corrections policy and urges the government to rethink. ''This [spending on prisons] comes at the very time that Treasury is telling the cabinet there's a shortage of money. You would think the Coalition could reassess their priorities now they're in government without losing too much face.''
He says the money would be better directed to those suburbs and towns known to contribute the bulk of the prison population. Norden says researchers have repeatedly identified the correlation between entrenched disadvantage, greater imprisonment and lack of social cohesion. ''We know the correlation between low preschool attendance, early school leaving and crime. We've got the knowledge, yet the policies are not shaped by that knowledge.''
It is not clear if the true cost implications of the Coalition's big lock-up have registered with McIntosh's cabinet colleagues, Premier Baillieu and Treasurer Kim Wells.
Attorney-General Robert Clark certainly doesn't seem deterred. In a joint project with the Herald Sun, Clark will next month run an online poll asking readers for advice on prison terms and other penalties. ''You Be the Judge'' was the Herald Sun headline announcing that survey last month. Texan Clayton Williams would have loved that idea.
If Clark has not yet caught up with the policy U-turns of his conservative cousins in Texas, he might take note of developments elsewhere in the US. California was another state that got tough on crime in recent decades without budgeting for the aftermath. So overcrowded did its jails become that the US Supreme Court last week found that conditions violated inmates' constitutional rights. It ordered the release of thousands of prisoners. Hardly a vote winner.