Fight crime by freeing prisoners

There is a positive way to attack the grim and worsening scandal of crime and punishment in America. It is simple but not simplistic. It will work; that is clear from many small samples of success. Its impact will be felt immediately. And it will save billions of tax dollars.

What I am proposing is simply this:

1. Release from prison to parole, supervised probation, work release, halfway houses, restitution programs, and other alternatives to incarceration approximately 100,000 carefully screened, nonviolent offenders, representing about 20 percent of the total US prison population.

2. Cut down substantially from this point forward on the number of non-violent offenders sentenced to prison, sentencing them instead to a wide range of alternative forms of punishment.

The immediate effects of this seemingly revolutionary but throroughly rational, workable initiative would be to:

1. End overcrowding in US prisons and thus eliminate a major element in the violence and inhumanity of prison existence.

2. Reduce the staggering cost of corrections by billions of tax dollars.

3. Reduce sharply -- based on solid, compelling evidence -- the recidivism rates of inmates released early from prison.

4. Restore to society and reunite with their families thousands of nondangerous offenders who would be imprisoned briefly or not at all if they lived in most European countries.

What instantly springs to mind is the question of our safety if 100,000 convicted criminals are suddenly released into the society. But the adverse impact, if any, would be barely noticeable. Prisons have a tendency to breed crime rather than stem it, and there is no solid evidence that prisons have had much impact in controlling and reducing the rate of crime in this country.

Despite our vast law-enforcement apparatus, few dangerous criminals are -- or ever will be -- locked up. The rest are either not caught, not prosecuted, not convicted, or not jailed. They live among us. Now. Those actually in prison represent but a small fraction of those who actually have committed violent crimes.

Statistics show, too, that more murders are committed by spouses, children, parents, siblings, other family members, friends, and business associates than by vicious killers roaming the streets and preying on the unwary. In Chicago in 1978, for example, more homicides were attributed to domestic disputes than to armed robberies.

Is my proposal, flying in the face of all we are fed and swallow whole, irrational and unworkable?

Quite the contrary, "it may be our only salvation," says Michael J. Mahoney, executive director of Chicago's John Howard Association, nationally renowned prison reform group.

"Anything that reduces the horrendous excesses of US prison sentence is bound to improve a bad situation," he states flatly. "All the research at our disposal supports the concept of early release. Invariably, prisoners released ahead of schedule are less likely to return to prison than those forced to serve every last day."

Mr. Mahoney notes that the Illinois Department of Corrections, faced with critical overcrowding, recently released 250 inmates ahead of schedule without incident.

Another outspoken advocate of "alternatives" is Milton G. Rector, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who called last November on the 7,500 criminal courts judges nationwide to "strike a powerful blow for justice" by moving the country away from its dependence on incarceration. In a remarkable letter to the judges, he wrote in part

"You know from firsthand experience that those we confine are mainly the poor , the young, and, disproportionately, members of minorities. . . . We must recognize, while there is time, that the continued caging of blacks and other minorities is the tinder of revolutionary fires. . . . The time has come to change the way the nation responds to crime. . . . Judges can put to work a wide range of alternatives for offenders who are not dangerous. . . . Offenders sentenced to alternatives have recidivism rates as low or lower than those who are incarcerated. The Public is equally well protected.m . . . Community-based sentences cost the public one-fourth to one-tenth as much as imprisonment. . . ."m

Note well what Mr. Rector stresses: the public, he says, would be "equally well protected" and the dollar savings to overburdened taxpayers would be substantial. Neither he nor I propose that a band of savages be loosed on a defenseless public, but only a carefully chosen segment of those certified nonviolent and nondangerous would be released.

"It would be a relatively easy matter," Mr. Mahoney told me, "to use present classification systems to screen inmates nationally for early release as you propose."

Why, then, do we persist in our folly? When will we heed the hard lessons of our failure to slow the advance of crime? Must we simply proceed from an Attica to a New Mexico to the next boodbath without demanding radical change?

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