Burger: an alternative to 'human warehouses'

Is the American public yet aware of the extent to which Warren E. Burger has become a crusader for US Prison reform? Many professionals, of course, both within and outside the criminal justice establishment, have added their voices to the rising chorus of outrage and concern about the overcrowding, lack of direction, underfunding, and problems of inadequate personnel that predominate in so many of the nation's penal institutions. But when it is the chief justice of the US Supreme Court who calls the nation's prisons "human warehouses," as Mr. Burger did this past weekend in a commencement address at Pace University, it is time to listen -- and take remedial action.

Justice Burger's remarks are not new. He first made his controversial proposal for turning prisons into "places of education and training and into factories and shops for the production of goods" several years ago. But it is precisely because years have passed since he first expressed his views -- and because the prison population has continued to swell -- that there is a new sense or urgency about the American prison problem.

Consider these facts: According to a recent report of the National Sheriff's Association, some 10 percent of the 3,493 jails in the US are under court order to remedy overcrowding or other problems; another 20 percent have lawsuits pending. But jails -- which are facilities to hold persons for short periods of time -- are not the only target. More than one half of the states now have had one or more prisons (facilities designed to incarcerate persons for long periods of time and for serious crimes) declared unacceptable by federal curts.

Is the only answer to the US crime problem that of building more and bigger facilities? That is hardly so, given the fact that the national prison population has doubled in the past decade to more than 400,000 persons even while crime is still a major challenge in many communities. Meanwhile, prison costs keep going up. Building a new maximum-security facility now costs up to $ 80,000 per inmate. Just keeping prisoners behind bars costs Americans $12 million a day.

Which brings us back to Chief Justice Burger's farsighted analysis. Mr. Burger argues that most prisoners are "maladjusted" persons who lack either a sense of work ethic or skills sufficient to make them responsible members of society. To remedy that, Mr. Burger would place prisoners "in a factory, rather than a warehouse -- whether that factory makes ballpoint pens, hosiery, cases for watches, parts for automobiles, lawnmowers or computers. . . " He would have prisoners paid "reasonable compensation" for their labors while charging them "for room and board."

In short, he advocates education and work as an alternative to traditional confinement. The present incarceration system has clearly not worked. A new approach, as called for by Chief Justice Burger, combined with a policy of supervised parole and work-release programs for nonviolent prisoners, deserves a try.

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