MATTHEW ANDERSON was once looking at a five-year prison term in Maine for a string of burglaries he committed to support his drug and alcohol habit.
Instead, he got only eight months in a state penitentary - and a mandatory stint at Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as a volunteer position as a Pee-Wee basketball coach. Mr. Anderson (not his real name) now has a job and is starting college.
He is the product of an ``alternative sentencing'' program - an idea increasingly being championed by some of the nation's toughest law-and-order governors as low-cost prison substitutes for nonviolent criminals.
Sentencing nonviolent offenders to community-service work, substance-abuse treatement programs, intensive supervision, house arrest, and other nonprison alternatives has long been associated more with liberals.
But pinched between demands to lower spending, and the desire to get tough on crime, some conservative state chief executives are turning to alternative sentencing as part of their overall crime packages:
* George Pataki, the ``tough on crime'' new Republican governor of New York, proposed last week to make room for violent criminals in state prisons by sending their nonviolent counterparts to alternative programs.
* At Republican Gov. George Voinovich's behest, Ohio hopes to lower overall prison costs by tripling its 1990-1991 alternative sentences budget to $94 million for 1994-1995.
* In his State of the State address, South Carolina Republican Gov. David Beasley exhorted the legislature to fund alternative programs.
But amid all the talk of lowering budgets and locking up more violent criminals, the real point at issue, says Maine Supreme Court Judge Arthur Brennan, is the idea ``that the only thing that's punishment is jail.''
In the current system, he says, ``Prison is the coin of the realm.`` That may be changing.
Thirty-seven states currently have some form of alternative sentencing programs - though most handle only a tiny percentage of those passing through court systems. In 1986, The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, found 83 programs in the nation. In 1994, they reported 200 programs.
But the question remains: Does it work? The answer, most experts agree, is: It depends.
For Matthew, who asked that his last name not be used, it did work. In the Alcoholics Anonymous program, Matthew says he made a critical connection: the link between drugs and crime.
Getting rid of the drugs and alcohol got rid of the crime, and teaching basketball to kids boosted his self-esteem. Last March, Matthew successfully completed his sentence. Now employed, he started classes at the University of Southern Maine last fall.
On a personal level, success depends on the individual offender's desire to change, explains Donald Jones, operations manager for North Carolina's alternatives program. Those who ``want to get clean and who want to fix things'' will succeed, he says.
Also critical for success is the support of judges. Nationwide, research shows that judges accept one-half to two-thirds of the alternative plans presented to them. Prisons provide a ``paucity of treatment'' for substance abuse or other ills, explains Judge Brennan. So, sending an offender to jail almost guarantees the denial of needed treatment.
Statistically, success rates are mixed. In a 1989 study, Prof. Stevens Clark of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, tracked rearrest rates for alternative sentencing programs in North Carolina.
Most programs generated similar rearrest rates as prison or traditional parole sentences. Community-service programs were ``modestly but significantly'' more successful, while victim repayment programs had somewhat poorer results. Dr. Clark speculates that added financial burdens of repaying victims increased the temptation to commit theft.
Alternative sentencing can, however, yield big savings for states: The Sentencing Project estimates the average annual cost per offender for an alternative program at $1,200 to $2,000 versus about $20,000 for prisons.
But experts warn that the numbers aren't that simple.
During the start-up period for alternative programs, costs are higher because states are paying for two programs. Later, if whole prisons, or even prison wings are closed, states begin to save money.
If, as Governor Pataki and others propose, however, the newly emptied cells are filled with violent criminals, overall costs ultimately increase. This is because the state is paying for prisons as well as alternative sentence programs.
``You don't save money until you start firing guards and closing prisons,'' explains Dr. Clark.
But the most critical element of success, many agree, is public support. Initially, most people recoil at the notion of releasing criminals from prison to serve alternative sentences.
One reason, says Chase Riveland, head of Washington State's Department of Corrections, is that many people assume all criminals to be violent. The public has not distinguished between violent and nonviolent offenders because ``we have not put a face on nonviolent criminals,'' says Mr. Riveland.
Surveys find most people support alternatives once a ``face'' - the individual's history, nonviolent nature, family background, etc. - is put on offenders.
``With the Department of Corrections gobbling up an increasingly large chunk of state budgets,'' says Riveland, if the public really wants both lower spending and tougher crime policies, ``something has to give.''