More Prisons Not a Cure To Crime, Experts Say
Prison heads call for intermediate solutions for some offenders, such as alternative sentencing, and expansion of drug and alcohol programs
BOSTON — IF President Clinton should ask Frank Hall if he wants money to help build a new regional prison in Oregon, the answer will be no.
Director of Oregon's department of corrections, Mr. Hall has not climbed aboard the national bandwagon promoting more prisons as one of the solutions to crime in the United States.
Nor does Hall think mandatory life sentences for repeat federal offenders - the ``three strikes and your out'' proposal recently approved in a United States Senate bill - is a viable long-term solution.
``In Oregon, we refer to this proposal as the corrections full-employment bill,'' Hall says. ``In reality there is no magic bullet, no single solution to the problem. And if the federal government goes in this direction, we will end up running geriatric facilities for people who are long past the point in their lives when they are a threat to the community.''
But Ronald Angelone, director of Nevada's Department of Prisons, believes that all habitual criminals deserve life imprisonment. He comments, ``Are we saying that we should release violent criminals because we don't want to hold them in prison through life's stages? This law will hinder criminals because a large percentage of violent crime is committed by the same individuals over and over again.''
Many directors of state prison departments - the professionals on the front lines of long-term handling of individual criminals - agree that some criminals should be incarcerated for life.
But long-term costs for operating prisons are becoming prohibitive. Last year federal and state costs for constructing and operating prisons and jails amounted to $25 billion. And building more and more US prisons over the last decade, along with tougher laws, has not significantly reduced crime or increased public safety. Between 1990 and 1992, the number of people behind bars increased by 160 percent. According to the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, US prisons and jails now hold 1 million inmates.
``In the last six years the population in Illinois prisons has grown by over 12,000,'' says Howard Peters III, Illinois state director of corrections. ``We have 35,000 inmates now. This is the most in state history. We have built 15 new prisons in the last 15 years and are still overcrowded.''
What many state correctional directors say will help reduce bulging prisons is alternative sentencing, or intermediate punishments, for some non-violent offenders. ``Electronic detention (detector fastened to leg) is an excellent cost-effective way of punishing,'' says Mr. Peters. ``It confines a person to his house [off-hours] but allows him to work, go to school, or be in drug or alcohol treatment. In this way taxpayers aren't providing clothing, food, or shelter for the offender.''
Other intermediate programs for offenders have had varying degrees of success around the country. Some are:
* Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP), which requires employment, meetings with probation officers five times a week, curfews, and surprise drug checks.
* Client-Specific Planning, which links offenders with community resources and may include restitution, education, training and other specific conditions mandated by a judge.
* Day reporting, which requires an offender to report daily to a central location and follow a plan.
``We need balance,'' says Hall, ``prisons for people who are a threat to the community, and intermediate sanctions and other ways of holding lesser offenders accountable while leading them back into the community under strict supervision. We need more funds to expand drug and alcohol programs too, but we shouldn't continue to build these incredibly expensive prisons which we then have to maintain.''
Often the fear of crime is heightened by reports of random shootings, serial killings, and inner city disintegration, he says.
Families in trouble
``The reality is that most violence happens among people that know each other,'' says Peters. ``It occurs more often in family units. We have to help young people, beginning in the first grade, to learn to resolve conflict without violence. What families did for each other in the past they aren't doing anymore because of the deterioration of the family. If society doesn't have children who are healthy and whole in the first grade, then we are likely to continue making a new crop of prison inmates.''
In Oregon last year, a bipartisan legislative effort, led by Governor Barbara Roberts, provided more funds for community programs and short-term confinement to cut down on the failures of people on parole and probation. Half of Oregon's prisons are filled with inmates who have violated parole or probation.
``Last year we actually had a decrease in the crime rate in Oregon,'' says Hall, ``and with the bipartisan support, we didn't have to request an additional $100 million for prison beds.''
What most corrections officials and penologists know is that rehabilitation occurs in an inmate when he or she decides to change.
``If we are going to make an impact on crime,'' Mr. Angelone says, ``it has to be in communities that help babies and families. I don't believe any prison system can rehabilitate people. Just by capturing more people on the streets is not going to stop crime. We have to go back to the roots of crime in communities if we want to see crime rates go down.''