Prison: the punishment of last resort

The reason for prison reform in the United States is not simply to forestall inmate uprisings like the one this week at the state prison in Ossining, N.Y. The reason, as urged by Chief Justice Burger and many other authorities, is to protect society more securely from crime.

This does not simply mean providing more uncrowded prisons with the living conditions called for by the Ossining inmates, though their ''requests'' were generally considered reasonable even while their holding of hostages could not be condoned. It means reserving prison space primarily to insulate the public from incorrigibly violent offenders. And wisely using alternative sentences for other offenders so that prisons become what a number of criminologists now urge: the punishment of last resort.

An example of the possibilities is reported from Virginia. Faced with an overflow penitentiary population, the state decided to offer incentives for alternative sentences. It would give funds to any county willing to start its own program of replacing jail with nontraditional means of correctional supervision. Now in one of the first authorized programs there are 25 offenders living in an old former hospital at less than a third of the prison cost of more than $13,400 a year. And they are not vegetating or learning more crime behind bars but doing community service and providing restitution to their victims.

The distance from present practices to a prevailing use of such approaches may be illustrated by figures from recent studies. As of the late '70s most states already imprisoned more violent crime offenders than others; but 19 states imprisoned more people convicted of crimes against property than convicted of violent crime. And the rise of mandatory sentencing led to increasing demand for prison space.

A federal prison population peak of 30,000 in 1977 had dropped to 24,300 a couple of years ago, owing partly to more use of community treatment centers. But, as of the first half of last year, the number of federal and state prisoners was rising at the highest rate since the government started keeping statistics in 1926. A 14 percent annual increase was projected. Supplying sufficiently expanding prison capacity has been estimated to cost at least $8 billion. Meanwhile, more than half the states are reported under court orders to better their systems because they have been violating inmates' constitutional rights.

Two years ago Chief Justice Burger argued that the fight against crime should be regarded no less than the Pentagon budget as a part of the national defense. But he would make expenditures more effective through prison reform, including better preparation of guards and more facilities for prisoner education. He has recently reiterated the call for training inmates in gainful occupations and ''taking off the backs of American taxpayers the enormous load of maintaining the prison systems of this country.''

Improved preparation of prison authorities seemed already to be exemplified in the noninflammatory handling of the Ossining situation. All sides evidently wanted to avoid another episode of tragic violence such as at Attica a decade ago.

Attitudes will continue to be important as the nation grapples with fashioning a correctional system that serves society by making the punishment ever more precisely fit the crime.

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