Better Ways to Punish Criminals

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 04, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Empty out prison cells? Bring non-violent criminals back intothe community? Stress drug ''rehab'' instead of drug dragnets?

Politically, those ideas seem off the map. Politicians are spooked by the specter of the Willie Horton television ads of 1988. Candidates trumpet ''law-and-order'' rhetoric. But as Adlai Stevenson said, ''Let's talk sense to the American people.'' Surely Americans are bright enough to understand the elements of a reform criminal-justice strategy, designed to keep our communities safe while also saving some of the billions of scarce dollars now flowing to cops, courts and prisons.

Item Number One of such a strategy clearly has to insist on keeping behind bars those prisoners with violent records. If there's reasonable danger they'll act violently again, premature release is inexcusable.

Number Two: Clear our prisons and jails of mentally disturbed people who aren't dangerous. Work on persuading all neighborhoods to take a fair share of supervised halfway houses for these people. But for a turn of ill fortune, any of us could be among the mentally disturbed. They deserve better than the filth and degradation of criminal incarceration.

Third: Focus on rehabilitation for all prisoners. It's a myth that ''nothing works'' in rehabilitation. Dead wrong.

Of course there are certain incorrigible criminals beyond all reform. But they're a small percentage of the 1.2 million people we incarcerate. Princeton University's John DiIulio says he's found ''hundreds of empirical studies'' that show offenders who participate in carefully conceived rehabilitation programs are less likely to commit new crimes.

Next, we need to work even harder on multiple methods of alternative punishment -- clear, definite punishment the public wants, but punishment that avoids sentencing to prisons that not only breed crime but are expensive.

Alternatives ranging from restitution to community service have spread widely in the last two decades. Probation and parole have expanded dramatically. In fact, three-quarters of all persons under correctional supervision across the country today are not behind bars -- they're under some form of probation or parole.

Still, there's room to press alternatives even harder.

Take New Jersey's ''firm but fair'' intensive supervision program, which requires convicts to comply with stiff curfew, drug abstention and employment rules and to submit to frequent unscheduled parole-officer checks. It's cut back dramatically on repeat arrests. The program costs $6,700 per offender each year, compared to $25,000 for a prison cell. Yet it remains a ''pilot'' experiment -- not the norm, which it ought to be.

I've visited work-release centers in Georgia that provide dormitory life and security checks at night but encourage inmates to work at regular jobs during the day. Disorganized criminals, usually young men, get the first discipline of their lives, without the likelihood of prison rape and abuse.

House arrest (sometimes with electronic foot manacles) is getting more popular, and produces big savings. And it is possible to punish effectively, with dramatically less cost, through such ''scarlet letter'' devices as a ''CONVICTED DUI'' bumper sticker on a drunk driver's car.

Maybe we should revive the stockades for those white-collar criminals who have seriously harmed the public. Would it really be ''cruel and unusual punishment'' for the likes of the savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating to endure public taunts a few hours a day?

On the other hand, there may be little point in pursuing alternatives that appeal to our emotions -- ''shock incarceration'' boot camps for young first offenders, for example -- but that aren't succeeding in reducing recidivism.

Community-service sentences -- working in parks, hospitals, social-service agencies for 20 to 500 hours -- make sense for thousands of convicts. So do ''punishment fits the crime'' sentences. Example: a physician who molested children not only loses his license for life but is required to contribute a share of his future income, from any source, to child-abuse treatment. A slumlord convicted of wrongdoing gets consigned to a long stay in one of his own rat-infested apartments.

Fines can be used more widely. The latest twist, already being tried in Phoenix and Staten Island, New York, sets fines not just by severity of a crime, but the offender's income. Graduated fines aren't only fairer; they're easier to collect, so that judges are more likely to choose them over putting a non-violent offender in an expensive prison cell.

Poll Americans on punishments and they viscerally opt for imprisoning wrongdoers and throwing away the key.

But in an Alabama experiment funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, citizen focus groups switched sharply toward alternate sentences once they learned the rationale behind them. The citizens still favored incarceration more than reform advocates in criminal justice. But the experiment showed the value of opening up people's minds to alternatives.

That, indeed, is what we need: dramatically widened public dialogue. The fiscal costs and grim social price of our soaring incarceration rates give us no other choice.

Neil R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.

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