BOTH President Clinton and the Senate are backing legislation to construct 10 large, regional maximum-security prisons in the United States as part of an anticrime package.
The extra jail space is designed to house violent felons and relieve overcrowding at local correctional institutions. Many experts and criminologists insist, however, that more prisons are not the answer to violent crime.
``We are in the midst of a vicious cycle,'' says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.
``We have high crime rates, and the response of the politicians is to build more prisons,'' he continues. ``The more money we put into prisons means less money into programs that might prevent crime in the first place. But they think, if we build a few more prisons, we can start to make a dent in crime.''
In a recent proposal to reduce crime in the US, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) in San Francisco said that ``despite doubling the size of our correctional system over the last 10 years, crime, and especially violent crime, has continued to increase.''
The US has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation in the world.
Between 1982 and 1992 in Texas, for instance, the prison population soared by 227,000, to 415,000. And the prison budget went from $600 million to $3 billion. But during the 10-year span, the overall crime rate in the Lone Star State increased by 25 percent and violent crime increased by 45 percent. Recently, Texas approved $1 billion for new prisons and health facilities.
The cost of operating the average prison bed over 30 years is $1.3 million, according to the NCCD. But some alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent criminals have proved effective and less expensive than building prisons. These include intensive supervision probation, electronic monitoring, day reporting, and drug-abuse treatment.
``I know that nobody ever got thrown out of office for saying, build more prisons,'' says Elliot Currie, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley. ``But most offenders today do not belong in high-security prisons.'' Better sentencing needed
Where many belong, say Dr. Currie and others, is in alternative kinds of sentencing.
``If we look at countries with lower crime rates,'' says Mr. Mauer, ``such as Western Europe or Scandinavian countries, they don't achieve lower rates by having greater numbers of people in prison. What they have is a decent standard of living for most people, and a safety net for them above the poverty line.''
But more conservative policy analysts say serving prison time remains an effective way to reduce crime. Surveys of prisoners have presented data on the crimes inmates committed over a year before being caught. If it is true - a disputed point - that incarceration prevents more crime, and that the savings from denied criminal activity is, in fact, higher than the cost of maintaining the prisoner, then society has a net gain.
Increasingly what brings men and women to prison is drug offenses. As a way of trying to prevent first-time drug offenders from being swallowed into the drug culture, President Clinton has proposed an expansion of the ``boot camp'' programs. More `boot camps'
Currently, 20 states have some form of a regimented quasi-military three- or four-month ``boot camp'' program with behavioral discipline and physical training. Results have been mixed.
In Oklahoma, according to Mathea Falco, former US assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters under President Carter, half of the camp graduates returned to prison within 2 1/2 years. Less than a quarter of regular prisoners returned.
But one boot camp in California has added what critics insists is needed: Rigorous physical training combined with education, drug-abuse counseling, and job training. After completing the boot camp, the youths have six months of supervision.
``If these young people have a drug problem,'' says Mauer, ``many always need help in areas such as learning how to read. I think we can do better in a community setting designed to provide treatment.''