A Harder Look at Prisons

It is estimated that 614,000 people will exit US prisons this year. Some will be let out on parole; many will simply have served their sentences. Their impact on sagging job markets and crime statistics is a matter of national concern.

For a little over two decades, the country has pursued get-tough-on-crime policies that limited the discretion of judges to shorten sentences, and of parole boards to grant early release from prison. Accordingly, the prison population has ballooned to around 2 million.

At the same time, many states have cut budgets for programs, such as education and job training, that attempted to prepare inmates for life on the outside.

An accounting, of sorts, is now under way, as the burgeoning inmate population leads to ever-larger numbers of ex-convicts in society. Some experts see the rising ex-con population reversing the declining crime rate of recent years. Too many former inmates, unable to break drug addictions, quickly return to prison.

All this should force lawmakers and citizens to consider whether the time has come to rethink some criminal-justice assumptions. For instance, has the widespread toughening of parole standards gone too far?

"Parole" almost became a dirty word in the late '80s, with political campaigns seizing on examples of parolees who committed terrible crimes. Over the year, many states and the federal government have done away with parole altogether (see story on page 1). In doing so, they also did away with a major incentive for inmates to behave well and improve themselves while in prison.

Are the states that cut inmate education and job-training programs in the name of a more punitive system fighting crime or adding to it in the long term? Most of the people who return to prison for parole violations or commit new offenses are woefully unprepared for anything else. According to Justice Department figures, 75 percent haven't finished high school, 40 percent are unemployed, and 82 percent are drug or alcohol abusers.

Education, training, and drug treatment should be viewed as prime anticrime tools. And inmates who take advantage of them and show progress should have some hope of a shorter stay behind bars.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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