One man's view: compassion, not toughness, controls crime

For the first time in seven years, Americans in a 1984 Roper poll cited crime control as their chief concern. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed wanted crime and drug problems to be the No. 1 target for government action, nudging economic issues into second place. Both federal and state governments consider crime control a priority and have enacted new sentencing laws designed to put more prisoners behind bars than ever before and, in many cases, to keep them there longer.

Do the tough new policies really make the public safer?

William G. Nagel says they don't.

Mr. Nagel's long career as a corrections specialist has led him inside nearly 500 prisons and jails in all but three of the 50 states. He worked for 11 years in New Jersey's maximum-security Bordentown State Prison.

In 1983 Nagel stepped down after 14 years as president of the Lake Wales, Fla.-based American Foundation, established by Edward Bok and involved from the 1960s to the early '80s in prison reform, among other things. Retirement has allowed Nagel to spend more time with his Australian-born wife, Ethel, at their home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. But even in retirement he continues to speak, write, consult, and lobby for change.

His mission is just what it has always been: to keep up a steady drumbeat for compassion, even at a time when the hard line is a lot more popular.

Nagel claims that, while tough new policies may play well with the public, they are of little aid in reducing crime, and may even serve to increase it.

``It reminds me of the primitive tribes in New Guinea,'' he tells a Monitor interviewer. ``They don't see the relation between the sex act and the birth of a child nine months later.

``We as a people don't see the consequences of taking a person out of society, out of family, out of work, putting [him] in some forbidding place, and not realizing that he comes out somewhere down the line a different person . . . . And [he's] probably a more serious problem to deal with. So we respond to [one] problem by creating [another] . . . . And we don't recognize that we've done that.''

Mr. Nagel doesn't suggest that reform in criminal justice would alone solve America's crime problem. That, he tells the Monitor, is the job ``of the family, schools, and the economy.'' But he does assert that enlightened policymaking can play a part.

``There is no evidence,'' he says, ``that severe sentences deter more [effectively] than short, sure sentences. In practice, benign handling equals less crime.''

He backs up his contention from direct experience:

In 1960, West Virginia had the nation's 12th-highest lockup rate. Nearly 130 of every 100,000 West Virginians were in prison at the end of that year. And West Virginia was not a crime-ridden state.It had the fourth-lowest crime rate in the nation.

Nagel tells how he launched an experimental program to develop ``good alternatives'' to prison in two counties that contributed 70 percent of the state's prison population.

He says his team ``developed a high-level citizen constituency for reform,'' made up of business, government, and union leaders. Large numbers of people were sent to community programs instead of prison, he recalls.

In the next 20 years, West Virginia's crime rates rose sharply, as did those in other states. Much of the increase, he explains, really stemmed from computerization and the record-keeping improvements it provided. But the data tell another, more heartening story:

In 1979 and '80, West Virginia had the lowest crime rate in the nation. Incarceration rates, meanwhile, had been halved. Only 64 of every 100,000 West Virginians were in prison at the end of 1980, giving the state (in a tie with Pennsylvania)(SEE CORRECTION BELOW) the nation's sixth-lowest lockup rate .

Between 1962 and '64, Nagel spearheaded a similar program in Pennsylvania. Its crime rate position dropped, in a national roundup, from 13th lowest in 1962 to sixth lowest (tied with West Virginia) in 1980. Incarceration rates stayed very low as well.

``You can move the system,'' Nagel contends.

Nagel is a maverick within his field, and he inspires respect, affection, and outrage in roughly equal measure.

Like many career corrections professionals, Nagel stumbled into the field that would become his lifework. It happened during World War II, when he was stationed at a post that housed a camp for German prisoners of war. At one point, he recalls, the POWs staged a small uprising, and, as a member of the negotiating team that helped quell the riot, he was exposed for the first time to what confinement did to people.

``The Germans [POWs] were fighting under a system that was abhorrent to me,'' he says, ``but in their society they were not pathological. They were not criminals. They were not mentally ill. They were middle-of-the-road Germans, just like I was a middle-of-the-road American, who got pulled into a huge war.

``And yet, in the environment of confinement, they became something else. They became animalistic. When the discipline broke down, it was every man for himself.''

The experience whetted Nagel's appetite to learn more. ``If it would do that to normal people,'' he wondered, ``what would it do to people who were already considered to be pathological or deviant? I got intrigued by it.''

Released from the Army, Nagel moved on to graduate school, then went to work in the prison system and to a position as the executive secretary for human services under two Pennsylvania governors. It was in Pennsylvania that he met his greatest mentor, Albert Fraser, who for many years headed the Pennsylvania Prison Society. ``He had worked for 40 years in the prison system and still believed in the improvability of man,'' says Nagel.

``And that's the thing that is different today,'' he says. ``We've lost our will to restore, and now our will is to punish. And we're a less worthy nation because of it.''

Can America, a nation with a notoriously high crime rate, afford compassion?

Nagel says it can:

``Anyone who truly has compassion for the victim . . . has to exercise that compassion by creating a criminal justice system that does not brutalize the offender, so that he returns more apt to victimize the public.''

Nagel ticks off some steps he would take to create such a system:

Expand prison industries. ``You are what you do,'' he contends, ``and if you do nothing, you are nothing. Prison must -- if nothing else -- give a person a sense he can do something, and therefore be something.''

Expand sentencing options. He would channel nonviolent offenders to community programs, viewing prison cells as ``the sanction of last -- rather than first -- resort,'' to be reserved for violent, dangerous offenders.

Strengthen probation and parole services. In 1980, Nagel says, a 50-state survey showed that the five states that had achieved ``some control'' over prison populations had ``flexible parole boards, which felt a sense of responsibility.''

Over the years, three views of imprisonment have shaped public policy: that prison should punish, reform, or segregate offenders. Today the concept of rehabilitation is in ill repute.

Even if rehabilitation programs didn't work, Nagel would reject the ``awful conclusion'' that they should be abandoned. It's the quality of trying,'' he asserts, ``that humanizes the prisons. [They're] close enough to the precipice all the time.''

But Nagel also contests the whole notion that rehabilitation programs are doomed to failure. It arose, he says, when scholars at some universities started to have ``serious doubts about the ability of government to deal with social problems.'' A series of cost-effectiveness studies was conducted, he says, ``into which a human quotient couldn't be placed.''

Then in 1974, Nagel recalls, Robert Martinson wrote a book entitled ``What Works?'' Nagel describes it as ``an extremely influential book that reviewed about 400 criminal justice programs . . . . [Mr. Martinson] came to the conclusion that none of them worked.''

Nagel, who knew Martinson well, believes that he ``was hoping we would move in a nontraditional way toward a solution. But instead, we've moved toward the most traditional way, of saying, `Well, if nothing works, why not do the one thing we know we can do, which is to put people in prison?' ''

The real tragedy, Nagel says, is that Martinson's book was based on flawed research. ``He did more intensive studies,'' Nagel says, ``and found out that there had, indeed, been methodology errors'' in his analysis. ``He recanted, and he subsequently committed suicide. But just like the correction of a serious error in newspapers -- a little box down in the corner -- that's the way the recanting went. It didn't have any impact on the world. But his book did have an impact.''

Nagel points out that since Martinson's book and others like it have appeared, ``we've had a doubling, and [we're] on the way to a tripling, of the prison population. But the strange part of it is that people don't feel a bit safer. They are more fearful today.''

Contributing to this fear, he says, ``has been a real or perceived increase in crime. I think crime has increased, but I don't think it has increased anywhere near in proportion to our fear of it. And I don't think it has increased in disproportion to the demographics of the situation.

``In the past 10 or 12 years,'' he continues, ``we have had a disproportionate number of young people who are disconnected with society, partly because of massive unemployment among youthful people, particularly youthful black people in the inner cities.''

The crime rates themselves, he says, must be read with great care, and a sense of perspective: ``There was a plateau during the '60s,'' he says. ``And then, at the end of the '60s, LEAA [the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration] was born, and after nine years of LEAA, the crime rate had gone up four times.

``Now you could say that the consequence of LEAA is that crime multiplied four times; therefore, it was a failure as public policy. But really, [LEAA] provided the police with the tools, the communication network, the response time. [It] provided them with the computers to record every phone call that came in, and so suddenly we are aware.''

Mr. Nagel is particularly anguished by the hard line many religionists have taken in the policy debate on criminal justice. In a 1983 Oklahoma speech he spoke of his youth, his early religious training, and his student days at Wake Forest College (``a citadel of Southern Baptists''), where he majored in religion.

In his classes, and at his church, Nagel was hearing of ``a stern and retributive God . . . who called for `an eye for an eye.'

``I found no happiness in that kind of religion,'' he said, ``and might well have then and there lost my faith, were it not for three devout fundamentalist Baptists [who] convinced me . . . that `an eye for an eye' was to limit retribution. Not two eyes for one eye.

``Moreover,'' he said, ``Hebrew scholars did not, like many of the rest of us . . . , take literally the idea that an eye should be destroyed . . . only that the value of an eye destroyed should be paid to the victim. An eye for an eye was justice,'' he said, ``but it was a restitution justice, not a retribution justice.''

The three Baptists, Nagel said, also helped him see that in the Bible, ``righteousness was seen as a concomitant of justice, and that righteousness was more important.

``As one biblical scholar saw it, `Justice is exact -- giving each man his due. Righteousness carries a burning compassion. It is reconciliatory.' ''

Due to an editing error in our Jan. 25 interview with prison expert William Nagel, the Monitor incorrectly stated that West Virginia was tied with Pennsylvania for the nation's sixth-lowest crime rate in 1980. Actually the two states were tied for sixth-lowest incarceration rate. West Virginia had the nation's lowest crime rate that year, and Pennsylvania the sixth-lowest.

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