BOSTON — AS crime rates in the United States soared during the last 15 years, federal and state responses hinged on building more prisons and mandating harsher penalties for criminals.
``The policies we tried in the last decade and a half have left most Americans in just as much fear as before at double the cost,'' says James Austin, vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) in San Francisco.
To address the fear, and underlying causes of crime, the NCCD today released a report advocating a major shift in crime-fighting priorities: Place the emphasis on long-term incarceration of repeat felons, but use proven alternative sentencing for the greater number of lesser criminals.
Mr. Austin, the author of the report, and a former corrections official in Illinois, calls for a freeze on public spending at current levels for all correctional operations.
The report also calls for prohibiting new sentencing legislation unless it carries a fiscal impact statement, and asks that the funds from ineffective prison and enforcement programs be used in health, educational, and antidrug programs. No extra money needed
``What's different about our plan is that we say we don't need any more money, in fact we'll save money with this program,'' Austin says. ``Let's make sure we have enough prison space to handle the really dangerous people, but not overpunish the others and waste billions of dollars. It's very difficult to make people better quickly or easily, so we say, cut the losses on the prison system and put the funds into preventive programs.''
Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan says the proposed 10-year program ``redefines what effective crime prevention must be about -
education, health care, economic opportunity, [and] programs for communities. It strengthens the hands of all true crime fighters, not only the police.''
Federal studies indicate that most criminal activity is done by young men between the ages of 15 and 24. Yet the average age of US prisoners is 28. ``Prisons are full of adults who are moving beyond careers as criminals,'' Austin says. ``To lower the crime rate, reduce the probability that young males will commit crime.''
Critics say the NCCD must challenge a public perception that all criminals deserve incarceration. Even though no more than 20 to 25 percent of 1.2 million US prisoners are considered dangerous career criminals, many states have severe sentences for possession of one gram of cocaine. Public support for plan
``Do you really think that crime-ridden New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C., will be inclined toward wholesale reform of their systems,'' says Roberto Rivera, director of research and development for Justice Fellowship in Reston, Va., ``if they don't have the assurance the kid who kills with an Uzi will be put away for a long time?''
A 1992 Harris poll indicated the public outlook on the pervasiveness of crime. The poll listed crime reduction as the top most unlikely US problem to be solved. ``As much as I respect NCCD,'' says Mr. Rivera, ``I think they are politically naive. I agree with abolishing mandatory minimum sentences in most cases, but the public is not going to be sold on the utility of this alternative vision of punishing the nonviolent guy in the community, unless the really bad guys are put away.''