Southern states innovate to save jail space

Jim Semple, a retired Army sergeant and director of the local USO, was furious when Kenny Richardson broke into the USO building late one night. Instead of going to jail, Mr. Richardson returned to the scene of his crime to work for Mr. Semple unpaid behind the snack bar, where he had unsupervised access to two cash registers.

The experience changed both their views. ``He turned out to be a great worker, the best I had,'' says Semple. ``He made a young man's mistake.

The program that kept Kenny Richardson out of jail is just one of dozens of ideas meant to relieve the pressure on full-to-bursting Southern prisons.

The South locks up a bigger proportion of its population than any other region of the country. Prisons are so overcrowded here that many of the state systems have been declared unconstitutional and taken over by federal courts. The problem is a national one, but one that is especially acute in the South.

The scramble to solve the overcrowding problem is causing states to take a more serious look at alternatives to traditional prisons and prison sentences.

They range from ``shock incarceration'' to community service. Tennessee uses a privately owned and operated prison in Chattanooga. Georgia runs a ``shock incarceration'' program where young offenders are given a short, concentrated dose of prison-life in a boot-camp setting. Florida provides the community work program where nondangerous criminals like Richardson are closely supervised and given strict schedules, while they work off their debt to society and their victims.

The traditional response to prison crowding, in the South and most other states, is the ``bricks and mortar'' solution, that is, building more prison space. Most states are doing that now.

But as prisons grow increasingly expensive, states are also getting more serious about cutting down the number of people in prison.

This is dangerous political ground. Conservative Southerners are even more concerned than most other Americans that criminals don't get off without due retribution for their crimes. Judges and district attorneys, often elected officials, often measure their toughness and success rate by the length of prison sentences.

North Carolina, for example, is in the throes of thinking through its prison policies, spurred by a lawsuit in the south Piedmont region that is forcing the state to build 500 new prison beds. A flock of similar lawsuits around the state, and a continually burgeoning prison population, could force more prison-building than the state can afford. A plan just completed by Gov. James Martin will build new prison space, but also let alternative ideas play a larger role.

Suzy Harbourt, director of the Community Penalties program in Fayetteville, believes that the three-quarters of North Carolina's prisoners that are not dangerous could be diverted from prison to community work.

Not only would it cut down on the inmate population, she says, but it allows criminals to support themselves and their families while they pay restitution to their victims and remain a productive part of society.

The Fayetteville program handles roughly only 50 clients a year, but the whole cost of the program is about $1,000 per client, compared with the very roughly estimated cost of $10,000 a year to incarcerate someone.

In this program, each penalty is custom-designed for the offender. Both the district attorney and the judge must agree to it. Most require at least 200 hours of community service, victim restitution, treatment for drug problems or credit counseling, and close supervision by community volunteers.

The program was designed to reduce the prison population. ``The failure of alternative programs in the past is that they were used for people who weren't headed for prison.'' They didn't actually reduce the prison burden. The Fayetteville program is limited for felons deemed to be headed for prison -- not probationers.

A new study of a similar program in Hickory, N.C., found that community penalties do cut the flow into prison. Stevens H. Clarke of the University of North Carolina found that 29 percent of the group considered by the program went to prison, while 79 percent of a similar group not considered went to prison.

The programs themselves are tough enough, notes Mary Ann Tally, a public defender in Fayetteville, that some of her clients prefer prison, where fewer demands are made on them. Yet, says Suzy Harbourt, people believe that ``the only way to crack down on crime is to put people in prison.''

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