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Redeem the prison generation

Treating prisoners like toxic social waste isn't working. Here's a better way.

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And despite chronic underestimates by prison authorities, independent studies estimate that at least 1 in 5 inmates are threatened or forced into sexual contact. Of these, more than half had been raped at least once. Data from the US Department of Justice shows that 42 percent of reported assaults were by prison staff, while 37 percent involved prisoner-on-prisoner violence. We have built Abu Ghraib next door.

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How long will we put up with this vicious cycle – and this waste of human potential? There is a better way:

•Invest federal dollars to put more cops on high-crime streets, since the data show that more police coverage had a greater effect on reducing crime in the 1990s than more jail time. President Obama's proposed budget adds less than a half percent to policing; the much-bigger boost in the 1990s led to a massive decline in crime.

•Revise mandatory sentencing guidelines and repeal the "three strikes" law so that judges have discretion to apply proportionate punishment. That's what they're paid for. Without that discretion, we'll continue to jam prisons with low-level offenders whose lives are likely to worsen in jail. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and others now recognize data showing that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders.

•States should ramp up efforts to handle drug users in drug courts rather than the criminal courts, sentencing them to monitored treatment rather than jail. From Texas to New Jersey, community-based programs with day-reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service are generating cost-effective results.

•To break the cycle of recidivism, cities must find creative ways to fund responsible, safe reentry programs. San Francisco, for example, partnered with Goodwill to fund a "Back on Track" program limited to adults without weapons offenses, who receive job training and placement, apprenticeships in the building trades, GED preparation, and parenting support.

If there's one person who needs your support now to make more of this happen, it's Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia. He's a decorated Marine and former Reagan administration Navy secretary with the courage and credibility to do for prison reform (a liberal cause) what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform (a conservative one).

Fixing this would tap the best of our traditions from both left and right. For conservatives, it restores the ideals of freedom and individual responsibility that no prison teaches, reducing the reach of the worst kind of welfare state. For liberals, it mitigates great social injustice and the disproportionate jailing of black and Latino Americans. And for both, it relieves state budgets of unsustainable expense that is damaging our standing in the world, our self-respect, and our safety.

Redemption is one of the oldest and best American stories. This is the land of the second chance.

Let's have a clearer and more constructive conversation about what we're trying to accomplish in our prisons: retribution, or reform. It doesn't take much for a boy who can't sit still and focus in class to wind up with a rap sheet and a lifetime defined by doing wrong.

Can we live with that? The answer depends on what you think American society should more closely resemble: a school, or a prison.

Mark Lange is a consultant and former presidential speechwriter.