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

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

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


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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." Limited agreement

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.

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