Are too many Americans in jail? Out of every 100,000 US citizens, 250 are behind bars, according to the American Institute of Criminal Justice. Among Western nations, only the Soviet Union and South Africa lock up a higher percentage of their populations.
Many states, exasperated by rising crime rates, are making jail terms mandatory for those convicted of certain offenses.
But proponents of restitution and community work programs claim that putting so many people into prison poses more problems than solutions.
A number of those who hold this view met in Boston recently to found the National Institute for Alternative Sentencing (NIAS). They cited two key reasons for developing alternatives to incarceration:
* Overcrowding. Some 314,000 people were locked up in the US last year, a record high for the fifth year in a row. Twenty-one states are under court orders to reduce their prison populations because of overcrowding. In Illinois, 600 state prisoners will be set free because there aren't enough cells to accommodate them.
* Cost. The annual cost of maintaining a person in prison exceeds the tuition at Harvard University. Each year, states pay from $12,000 to $20,000 per prisoner to maintain their corrections facilities. And building new prisons costs $50,000-$60,000 per cell.
Alternative sentencing programs are being tried in a number of states. One of the best known was initiated, with the cooperation of local employers, by District Judge Albert Kramer in Quincy, Mass. Scores of juveniles and young adults have, in the past four years, been placed in jobs and required to use the earnings to pay restitution to the victims of nonviolent crimes ranging from vandalism to auto theft.
The Quincy program has its critics, especially among the local police and some of the offenders who found the burden of restitution onerous. But many of the young lawbreakers have been put on a new track, even to the extent of obtaining permanent employment as the result of their work assignments.
Other examples include: an Englewood, Colo., program, under which an artist convicted of a felony was sentenced to a term teaching drawing at a nearby correctional institution; and a program in California under which former District Judge Charles Renfrew, now a US deputy attorney general, sentenced a government official caught with his hand in the till to lecture business groups on the "wages" of white-collar crime.
A 1979 survey of state planning and corrections agencies turned up 54 similar restitution programs. It also listed 136 community works programs for nonviolent offenders.
Judith Greene, NIAS director, says this approach is no longer an experiment whose results are uncertain. "Alternative programs have shown they work," she claims.
But critics say there are not enough statistics yet to be conclusive. They argue that alternative sentencing doesn't reduce the number of people sent to jail, since it deals with people who normally would receive probation or suspended sentences. One correctional administrator charges that such programs spend funds on "middle-class runaways and shoplifters" that could be used to deal with inner-city crime.
But alternative-sentencing advocates insist such programs are a step toward relief from crowded, costly prisons.