The issue of prison reform may be one of the most pressing social problems in the United States today. Yet, despite the fact that public support for tougher mandatory sentencing laws and speedy confinement is at one of the highest levels in years, existing prisons - both at the federal and local levels - are seriously overcrowded and too often understaffed. Thus the time is at hand for Americans to consider sensible new alternatives to traditional methods of punishment and confinement.
The sheer numbers are staggering: over 385,000 persons are now behind bars, or one out of every 590 Americans. For the year ending this past March, inmate rosters in federal institutions grew by l4 percent. For the first quarter of 1982, the rate of increase at state prisons was a high 18 percent. Meanwhile, the average per-bed cost for building new institutions at the federal and state levels has risen to $45,000 and $48,000 respectively.
Fortunately, the overcrowding problem, which has become so severe that some two-thirds of the states are now under court order to improve conditions in prisons, is not beyond solution. In fact many innovative new approaches have been proposed in recent months, and often by persons directly involved in the criminal justice system:
* The Reagan administration is proposing that vacant military installations be used to house prisoners.
* Chief Justice Warren Burger has called for better rehabilitation and job training programs within prisons. Mr. Burger urges that prisoners learn gainful occupations so that the enormous costs of maintaining institutions can be taken off the backs of taxpayers.
* Many states now are instituting such alternatives to detention as work-release programs; earlier parole; probation for nonserious offenses; and direct restitution from the wrongdoer to the victim as a substitute to incarceration.
Such alternatives need not be inimical to the notion of punishment and deterrence. As the National Law Journal notes in its current issue, restitution is becoming a particularly popular approach in many states, both as a supplement to confinement and as an option to be used instead of imprisonment. A worthy bill now before the US Senate would allow federal judges to require restitution in addition to a regular sentence. Presently, restitution is allowed as a condition of probation.
In the long run, the goal remains that of both deterrence and rehabilitation - punishment that ensures that the offender can no longer prey upon society and rehabilitation that offers promise that the offender will become a productive and useful member of society. Surely there is a better way to the criminal justice process than a United States dotted with costly jails - and a continuously swelling prison population.