Cries Against Crime Lead to Proposal For Regional Prisons

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE halls of Congress echo these days with emotional words from lawmakers who vow to get tough on violent criminals. They demand:

``Jail, not bail.''

``Lock 'em up and throw away the key.''

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``Three strikes and you're out.''

``Two strikes and you're out.''

``One strike and you're in.''

Why all the anger? And what can be done? Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida says crime has gotten so bad, and punishment so uncertain, that Washington must join the states in a united effort against criminals.

Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California notes that murderers in the United States typically get prison sentences of 15 years, but are back walking the streets in only 5 1/2. Out of 4,000 recent murders, ``Forty percent were committed by people who were released early from prison,'' he says. Since Thanksgiving, 30,000 of the felons who were convicted of violent crime ``received no prison time at all,'' he says.

Responding to complaints that state prisons are ``revolving doors,'' even for the most violent criminals, Congress is examining a number of potential solutions. These include mandatory sentences for violent criminals and life imprisonment for repeat violent offenders.

One controversial concept, proposed by Representative McCollum, calls for the federal government to build and run regional prisons, each holding 2,500 convicts, to ease state prison overcrowding.

The cost: $6 billion, half from Washington, half from the states.

The Senate-passed crime bill contains a similar provision, though it differs somewhat, including the funding provision.

McCollum's idea has several purposes, one of which is to expand a prison system which now sets thousands of violent criminals free because of overcrowding.

The California prison system, for example, currently has packed 120,000 felons into 50,000 cells. Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, says the crowding is so serious that 79 percent of convicted felons never spend time behind bars.

However, while Congress appears ready to lock up more criminals, McCollum's proposal has run into significant opposition from several quarters, including the White House.

Governors and state legislatures also are cool to the idea because McCollum's offer comes with a price.

States that send convicts to the regional prisons would have to adopt ``truth in sentencing'' laws, which would require that the worst violent felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. So a murderer who gets a 15-year term would have to remain locked up for at least 12 years.

Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors' Association, says such a requirement would be extremely expensive for state governments. An analysis done in Missouri, for example, indicates that adopting an 85 percent rule would make the state's prison population climb by 40 percent.

The federally funded regional prison system could absorb some of those additional prisoners. But most of the convicts serving longer terms would still be in state prisons at a cost of about $23,000 a year each. That cost would be paid by Missouri taxpayers.

The Senate bill also carries an 85-percent rule. During debate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware worried that if states accept the $3 billion in federal aid to get the prisons, along with the accompanying mandate, they might be forced to spend nearly $12 billion for extra prison space.

However, defenders of the regional prison concept say critics are failing to see the larger picture.

Representative Royce says: ``If you can get the hard-core violent career criminal behind bars, you can reduce the incidents of violent crime substantially.''

Citing figures from a 1982 Rand study, supporters of regional prisons note that a typical career robber commits 41 to 61 crimes per year. Auto thieves each steal an average of 76 to 100 cars annually. Burglars break into 76 to 118 homes and businesses a year.

On average, every career criminal costs society $400,000 or more per year in lost property, hospital bills, lost wages, and other damages. Supporters of regional prisons ask: Is it cheaper to pay the $23,000 a year to keep a violent criminal locked up, or to suffer the losses that criminal causes on the outside?

In a telephone interview from his Florida district, McCollum expressed a willingness to be flexible to ease state concerns about funding. ``If the plan works right, we should be saving the states money,'' he says. ``If they're not saving money, there is no carrot.''

McCollum says the rule requiring that convicts serve 85 percent of their sentences doesn't apply to all felons, only ``repeat, violent felons'' who pose the greatest risk. Nor is this a new mandate for states, he insists.

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