Arlen Specter: The Cost-Effectiveness of Rehabilitation in Corrections

Corrections Today, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Arlen Specter: The Cost-Effectiveness of Rehabilitation in Corrections


Editor's note: The following is an abridged version of the annual luncheon keynote address delivered by Sen. Arlen Specter on Jan. 16, 1996.

I grew up in the Midwest. I was born in Wichita and grew up in Russell, Kan. Soon after graduation from law school, I left a private practice and a big firm to become an assistant district attorney. One of my initial assignments was to be in the pardon section and to have the job of interviewing those who were under the death penalty or under life sentences for a commutation. That job took me to all of Pennsylvania's prisons.

It became obvious at an early stage that the prison facilities were a key part of the overall criminal justice system. If someone left jail as a functional illiterate without a trade or a skill, that person was very likely to be back in jail. The district attorney's job was substantially broader than just locking them up, because they were going to be coming right back out into the criminal justice system again. I developed a keen interest in what I call realistic rehabilitation - job training and illiteracy training.

One of my interests in speaking to you here today beyond encouraging you to take a look at Philadelphia's five squares . . . is to urge you to assist in the political job of organizing the statistics and evidence which show that it is cost-effective to have rehabilitation programs in our correctional facilities. I compliment you on your work, and I compliment you on the title of your organization, the American Correctional Association, with the emphasis on the word "correction."

In the U.S. Senate, I can tell you that it is a very, very difficult job to get funding for corrections. The American people are furious, absolutely indignant . . . with the problem of violent crime in this country. On the political trail, it makes a great sound bite to say that we're not going to send people to Holiday Inns and that they ought not to have any facilities that make it habitable. We have an enormous budget crunch in Washington today, so it's a difficult matter. As I survey the literature - and have for many, many years - I think that the case has not been made about the cost-effectiveness of realistic rehabilitation. Until that case is really made in very, very emphatic terms, it's not possible to get the kind of funding and the kind of support to really make it a correctional facility.

When I was district attorney of Philadelphia, we put into effect the first nationwide program - what we called a pre-indictment probation, a diversionary program. A very able assistant of mine, Allan Davis, who is now a high-priced lawyer a few blocks away from here, came to me one day and said, "We ought to get rid of a lot of cases." We had 30,000 cases a year. And we took first offenders on nonviolent crimes and found a superior court judge, Sidney Hoffman, to sit with them, taking 80 a day, bringing them in one at a time, saying that if they stayed out of trouble for a year, their record would be expunged and the charge forgotten. But if they got back into trouble, they would have two prosecutions which they would have to face.

We opposed plea bargaining, tried the cases which involved violent offenders, because of my view that the only real value of a criminal prosecution was a jail sentence if that was what was needed at the end, as opposed to the concept of saving the time of the courts and counsel. We built up quite a backlog, and we worked hard on the issue of corrections and rehabilitation.

In my first year in the Senate, of the first three bills that I sponsored, one involved career criminals, trying to get long sentences. Those efforts were successful in 1984 with the Armed Career Criminal Bill, where violent criminals with three or more prior convictions were tried in the federal courts when found in possession of a gun. The effort there was to take the pressure off the state courts.

The second bill that I introduced was to try to set up federal prisons to house those convicted under state habitual offender laws. …

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