'Learn the way out of prison'

A weekend of violence in several American prisons darkly underscored Chief Justice Burger's renewed call for prison reform in a Sunday commencement address. The "expensive folly" of confining offenders without trying to rehabilitate them was a theme of Mr. Burger's much-publicized February address on controlling crime. But that theme has tended to get lost in the debate over how to achieve the "swift and certain consequences" which the chief justice properly urged as a deterrent to crime. As recently as Monday night a television discussion show was still leaving the Burger approach synonymous with tough penalties; it is much more than that, much more in keeping with criminal justice studies over the years that stress not only the benefits of certain punishment but the inadequacies of incarceration per se as a means of reducing crime.

Thus Mr. Burger makes another valuable contribution to the search for solutions by offering two "small steps" toward prison reform in a budgetary period when he considers large steps to be unlikely.

One of these elaborates on the program to "learn the way out of prison" that he mentioned in February. It would provide mandatory vocational and educational training to improve inmates' capabilities for gainful occupation when they leave prison. There would be incentives, such as credit against sentence time, for participating in the training. The idea would be to ensure that no prisoner remains without some qualifications for employment, including the ability to read, write, and do arithmetic.

The other small step would be the establishment of a national academy of corrections to train prison personnel and supply technical assistance to state and local prisons. Mr. Burger said that, as it is now, guards can become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, with their "astonishing rate" of turnover, with too many poorly trained and some not trained at all for "the sensitive roles they should perform."

A basic part of the solution to crime remains a strengthening of individual morality in a conducive economic and social environment. But where basic solutions are not achieved there remains a need to improve society's apprehension and handling of offenders.

In an effort to force sentencing and prison reform, a current movement goes so far as to advocate a moratorium on new prison construction -- echoing a federal panel's recommendation of almost a decade ago. But if such a moratorium seems unrealistic, Chief Justice Burger's call in February for broad-scale physical rehabilitation of all prisons should not be any more unrealistic than improving the nation's highways or national defenses.

Meanwhile, consideration of his "small steps" should not be delayed. As he told the new law graduates of George Washington University, society has a moral obligation to provide better conditions in prisons and help inmates to better their lives. And, by producing better "products," prisons will find fewer of them being sent back.

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