New plans for crowded prisons

Whatever their politics, liberals and conservatives alike tend to agree on one key point in the controversial debate over how best to fight the continuing crime problem in the US: that the nation's current prison facilities, overcrowded, often understaffed, and in many cases built decades ago, are not succeeding in rehabilitating criminals.

Given the squalid conditions found within many institutions, prisons often contribute to recidivism by reinforcing criminal behavior.

For that reason, suggestions now coming from top government and prison officials about the need for new -- and more modern -- prison facilities warrant close examination by the American public. That is not to say that building new prisons by themselves will be the ultimate answer to the crime problem. That would hardly be the case.

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But better prison conditions could surely be an important anticrime step combined with such enlightened penal practices as work release and community service programs, probation, victim restitution, and more appropriate sentencing and earlier parole procedures. No less an authority than Chief Justice Warren Burger has called for a "broad-scale physical rehabilitation of all prisons" to end the overcrowded, understaffed facilities now found in many parts of the US.

Because the prison population has begun to rise sharply after a drop for several years -- largely because of increased prosecutions of violent crime and heroin offenders -- there may be a need for "more prison space," according to Norman Carlson, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Mr. Carlson made his remarks last week. Now presidential counselor Edwin Meese III has come forth with the somewhat startling proposal that the Reagan administration hopes to turn over jails and prisons on unused military bases to state and local governments to help relieve overcrowded prison conditions. The administration is also considering selling or renting unused federal lands to local governments for new correction centers.

Given the huge costs of building new facilitties in this day and age, the administration plan is certainly a possibility. It is to be assumed that there would be no real ground for constitutional objections so long as there is a clear distinction between civilian and military jurisdictions -- that is, that there be no military involvement whatsoever in the incarceration process, and that the facilities are turned completely over to civil authorities. In this regard it might be recalled that a fair number of US states are currently under court order to relieve overcrowded jail conditions. Since some local officials have expressed concerns that quick release of in mates could actually pose a threat to public safety by putting dangerous persons back on teh streets, the Reagan proposal to use discarded military facilities makes sense.

Meantime, the administration and Congress should not overlook the need to provide all necessary funding to modernize outdated facilities. The issue is not one of "coddling criminals." Rather, as Chief Justice Burger has pointed out , it is to ensure that once a person is incarcerated for a crime society has a fair chance at reforming that person -- before he or she is once again back among the public.

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