What's Behind Community Enforcement

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Behind the concept of community corrections is an idea at odds with the popular view of combating crime today - lock 'em up for a long, long time.

"I think the case for prisons is easier to make," says Ron Corbett, President of the National Association of Probation Executives. "It's an easier sell at this point. Perhaps the community-corrections world hasn't done as good a job as it could in making its case."

Community-corrections advocates say that by placing less-violent young offenders on probation in demanding community programs, combating crime can be shifted from an expensive "enforcement model" to a less-expensive "prevention model." Such intervention programs are designed to break patterns that lead to crime, improve skills, demand restitution, and change habits. Thirty years ago, most US jurisdictions offered many rehabilitation programs, but recidivism continued to climb, mainly as a result of the avalanche of drug use.

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Even today, some criminologists remain skeptical of the value of rehabilitation programs. "Simply by reaching [age] 25, many criminals begin to mature and back away from a life of crime," says Bernard Fitzgerald, Chief Probation Officer in Dorchester Court in Boston.

James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, says that today the public is more interested in the "three 'R's: retribution, revenge and retaliation."

When crime is perceived as pervasive, people express their fears to politicians and courts. States build more prisons to punish criminals with tougher, longer sentences. When the Republican Congress revised the Crime Bill of l994, nearly $5 billion previously earmarked for prevention programs was diverted to prison construction.

The prison approach overlooks the fact that most criminals are already in the community on probation or parole, according to crime researcher Joan Petersilia at the University of California, Irvine. "Seventy-two percent of all identified criminals [in l993] were serving sentences in the community..." she wrote in a recent report for the American Probation and Parole Association. Therefore, to control crime, increased efforts need to be focused in communities, she says.

According to the National Association of Justice Planners, probation and parole budgets in the US in l992 received "only 14 percent of the criminal-justice dollar."

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