WASHINGTON — AS the United States struggles to deal with rising crime, drug-related and other, one of its most serious problems is lack of prison space, criminologists say. That problem worsened last year, according to new figures released by the US Department of Justice. On the last day of 1988, a record 627,000 Americans were in prison, 7 percent more than a year earlier. Across much of the US prisons are overcrowded. The Justice Department estimates that federal prisons are overcrowded by 33 percent to 72 percent. That prison shortage ``sounds horrible and is horrible,'' says John DiIulio, author of several books on corrections.
But the added prisoners and overcrowded facilities comprise only a small part of the nation's problem as it struggles to deal with people convicted of crimes. Today the criminal justice system has 3.5 million Americans under some kind of supervision, Mr. DiIulio says.
Over three-fourths are not incarcerated, he points out, but are on parole or probation in their communities, supposedly under conditions of supervision. Thus ``overcrowding behind bars has not prevented overloading [of convicts] on the streets,'' says Mr. DiIulio, who is also an associate professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
The vast majority of convicts on parole or probation, DiIulio says, ``don't have any meaningful supervision ... nor do they have any meaningful help in finding jobs.''
In New York City and several other large cities a corrections official is expected to supervise on average between 200 and 300 people. With such a heavy caseload, DiIulio notes, that supervision ``is going to amount to a phone call once a month, if that.
``We are outstripping our capacity to manage these people,'' DiIulio says.
His argument is supported by statistics released earlier this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It found that 63 percent of all convicts released from prison were rearrested within three years. That, DiIulio points out, ``is the worst number that we have seen in quite some time. It reflects that there is basically no supervision going on'' in many areas of the US.
By contrast, a few communities are experimenting with intensive supervision programs in which corrections officers have few people to supervise and are able to meet frequently with them. These, says DiIulio, ``are proven and they do work.''
But the programs are expensive. More money has to be spent to hire additional people to supervise convicts who have been released to the community on parole or probation. But this is unlikely, given the national budget squeeze and society's current trend toward more and stiffer jail sentences.
NEVERTHELESS, DiIulio contends, spending more money on supervision would be cheaper for society in the long run than enduring all the repeat offenses with the related costs of law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. When all these factors are considered, he says, intensive ``supervision and probation programs look very, very cost effective.''
Certainly America has to do something. Federal drug czar William Bennett and other authorities talk about a major new effort to put behind bars midlevel drug pushers and other criminals associated with drug trafficking. The federal prison population is forecast to nearly double in the next six years - from 50,000 today to 90,000 in 1995.
Currently the US spends about $20 billion every year for all corrections activities, from building and operating prisons to paying parole officers and supervising parolees.
Substantially increasing supervision would cost perhaps $10 billion a year more, DiIulio estimates.