How to help prisoners -- and society

In Massachusetts, the state corrections commissioner has asked district attorneys to slow down their prosecutions because prison overcrowding has created a "serious situation." In Illinois, some 600 inmates will be released early from state prisons because there is simply no room for them. in Idaho, 400 inmates at Idaho State Penitentiary went on a rampage last week demanding, among other things, more opportunities for vocational training. These are all-too-familiar reminders this summer that greater public attention needs to be given to resolving the persistent problems confronting America's outmoded, overcrowded, and violence-prone penal institutions.

The number of prisoners held by federal and state corrections authorities continues to grow. With the highest incarceration rate of any Western nation (except for South Africa), the US increased its prison population to 314,083 in 1979, a record high for the fifth consecutive year. This is largely the result of new laws with mandatory sentences for drug-related and certain other offenses as well as the recent trend toward imposition of longer sentences.

Yet, these grim figures are forcing something to be done. There are encouraging signs that because of prison overcrowding a number of states are seeking out innovative alternatives to the traditional walled-in fortress-like prisons from which many offenders, far from being rehabilitated, have emerged better schooled in the ways of crime than in how to become responsible members of society.

The courts, too, are pushing states in this positive direction. The entire penal systems of eight states have been ruled unconstitutional because of overcrowding; 21 states plus the District of Columbia, puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands are under court order to reduce their prison populations. Five other states have cases pending against them. Moreover, th high costs of prison construction and the enactment of Proposition 13-type legislation is prompting greater experimentation with work-release, job-training, and counseling programs.

Alternatives are available at every stage of the judicial process, from arrest to sentencing, which hold out new hope of eventually reducing the inmate population and, more importantly, of finding more humane and effective ways of rehabilitating offenders.

Before arrest. Some communities are using meditation and arbitration centers for resolving family and neighborhood disputes. For instance, the Citizens Dispute Settlement Project in Columbus, Ohio, uses law students to do this. The project is credited with lowering the number of minor arrests and assaults by 22 percent. San Francisco's Delancey Street Foundation has a residential center where drug addicts are sent for counseling. Erie, Pa., offers similar help to inebriates.

Before trial. Citations and summonses, similar to traffic tickets, are given for certain misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct. The offender is allowed to pay a fine, rather than go to jail. Some courts are using non-bail release which relies on a third party or a court-appointed supervisor to ensure an accused's appearance at trial.

During a trial. Some cities are using weekend and night courts to handle the large number of arrests that occur over weekends. Without such off-hour court sessions, jails are frequently filled to capacity over weekends. In place of prison, some communities require violators to pay compensation to victims in larceny, burglary, and auto theft cases. Some judges sentence minor offenders to perform some kind of community service. Georgia, which handles 85 percent of its misdemeanors and 15 percent of its felony convictions in this manner, has lowered its county jail population by a daily average of 66 percent.

Massachusetts, turning more and more to alternatives, is said to have the lowest incarceration rate in the US; yet its crime rate has dropped steadily for the past five years. Penal experts say studies have shown that imprisonment is not a deterrent to crime. In general, work-release programs tend to lower the recidivism rate. Massachusetts found that inmates who do not participate in such a program are twice as likely to return to prison.

Such alternatives cost a community considerably less than building larger prisons or feeding and otherwise providing for an inmate during incarceration. Prisons must continue to be provided to house the small percentage of hardened criminals. But, as prison reform groups stress, "prisons without walls" hold out the best hope for rehabilitating most nonviolent wrongdoers. Recent experience would seem to bear this out.

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