Mr. Burger's case for prison reform

If we judge the temper of the American people correctly they are more eager than at any time in recent years to take tough action against the intolerabel crime problem within the US -- symbolized by enactment of new mandatory sentencing laws in many jurisdictions and increasing reports of citizens actually fighting back against wrongdoers. Simply put, the public has "had it" with criminals, who prey upon society to the tune of billions of dollars in thefts, growing drug traffic, break-ins, and streets crimes -- not to mention the infliction of suffering on victims and their families.

One important issue that must be quickly resolved by the incoming administration is whether it will continue reforms of the overcrowded US prison system begun under the Carter administration and seek alternatives to incarceration without sacrificing the public's need for swift and effective punishment. What will be the approach of the Reagan administration and Attorney General William French Smith to the whole question of punishment? Will it come down on the side of a tough "law and order" approach somewhat along the lines of the Nixon administration, when the government sought swift jailing of wrongdoers and stressed the apprehension of street criminals? Or will it follow the somewhat less intense incarceration policies of the Carter administration, and its emphasis on curbing white collar crime? Or a combination of both?

Mr. Reagan has spoken out in favor of stiff sentencing for use of a firearm in the commission of a crime, a position that we have supported in these pages. But one effect of such sentencing is to add to the huge US prison population -- a population that is already second highest among Western nations.

For these reasons we found the thoughtful year-end report on the American judiciary system by Warren Burger, chief justice of the United States, to be very helpful. Mr. Burger, who can hardly be considered "soft" on wrongdoers, comes down squarely on the side of prison reform through such remedies as work programs outside the prison, better probation methods, revised mediation procedures involving complaints from inmates, and the need for greater cooperation throughout the entire criminal justice system.

The recommendations by Mr. Burger not only make good sense of us but are consistent with new rules for federal prisons announced earlier this month by Attorney General BEnjamin Civiletti. The 352 standards, mandatory for the 43 federal prisons and suggested as guidelines for state and local institutions, seek to open up prisons to the community at large, in ways such as allowing prisoners to visit with families, while easing the overcrowding, squalor and lack of educational and health facilities within many institutions that add to criminal behavior more than correct it.

After noting the grim riot at the New Mexico penitentiary last February that claimed 33 lives, Mr. Burger concludes that "our criminal justice system is need of fundamental change." The "potential for such violence," he adds, is not "unique to the situation in New Mexico."

Among other recommendations, Mr. Burger concludes that requiring offenders "as a condition of probation, to do uncompensated work for a public or charitable agency" may well "serve as an effective deterrent." So far as how well the current criminal justice incarceration process is working within the US , Mr. Burder says that "I regret to say society is winning fewer battles, and, as of now, is losing this war."

We would hope that the Reagan criminal justice transition team will study Mr. Burger's remarks with great care. Justice must be swift, appropriate, and certain. At the same time, the new administration's justice program must be structured in such a way as to actually help wrongdoers find their way back into useful roles in society if at all possible. And it certainly must seek to avoid any future riots, as occurred in New Mexico.

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