Today more than a half-million people are locked up in this country; that total grows by more than 1,000 inmates each week. Next year Americans will spend close to $10 billion operating the nation's prisons.
Using prison sentences so extensively has put a serious strain on state resources. For most states, prison outlays mean drawdowns in other public services. For example, in California, a $300-million state expenditure deficit caused in part by the rising costs of the prison system resulted in a cutback in funds for public education and medical services for the poor.
Despite this enormous investment, our prisons are operating at a national 110% of capacity, and we are far from controlling crime. The prison population doubled over the past 15 years, yet the violent crime rate is now substantially higher. Further, the number of probationers has increased even faster than the number of prisoners, and more than half the probationers are now felons--many convicted of violent crime.
There is a major irony here: By giving judges no options but prison or probation, most states no longer have enough prison space to accept or to keep some serious criminals for very long. These criminals wind up on probation or early parole, and caseloads have gotten so large that probation and parole officers cannot effectively supervise them. The average "supervision" probably consists of seeing the average offender once a month or less. Furthermore, the time served in prison has grown shorter now than in the past. The average time prisoners served in 1970 was 18 months; now it is 13 months, a decrease partly resulting from prison overcrowding.
Most Americans agree that something must be done.
Over the last few years, more and more states have been experimenting with programs that provide alternatives to prison sentences. Not long ago, public demands to "get tough on crime" would have made such experiments politically unthinkable. But that was before crime rates and mandatory sentencing laws combined to make prison conditions themselves unlawful in many states.
Although spending on prisons has increased about 10% every year since the mid-1970s, 37 states are now under court order to do something about prison overcrowding. Because building prisons puts a terrible strain on most states' budgets, taxpayers have recently been more willing to consider programs that might cost less--as long as they also control and punish criminals appropriately.
These programs may herald a fundamental change in sentencing concepts and options, or they may simply be quick fixes to prison overcrowding. The country is long overdue for such a fundamental change, and even if these programs begin as stopgap measures, they provide a singular opportunity to start reshaping the nation's corrections philosophy.
Most of these programs are "community-based," but they differ from traditional probation in important ways. The convicted criminal remains in the community but under strict surveillance and conditions intended both to punish and to prevent the offender from committing any more crimes. Programs range from intensively supervised probation to electronically monitored house arrest to short term "shock" imprisonment, followed by strict probation regimens. But most require that offenders have a job (or go to school), perform some kind of public service and pay monetary compensation to their victims. Offenders are also subject to frequent, unannounced visits from program officers and police and to random drug testing.
National interest in developing such "intermediate" sanctions has been phenomenal--and understandable. There were only two electronically monitored house-arrest programs in 1985; today there are more than 50. Such programs are much cheaper than prison. For example, house arrest costs about $5,000 to $8,000 a year--or about $10,000 a year less than the cost of keeping an inmate in prison. Further, since program participants work, they pay state and local taxes and states do not have to pay the welfare payments that prison inmates' families often collect.
Despite their stringency and lower cost, these programs have their critics. The bulk of "correcting" has always been done in the community by probation and parole agencies. Yet the public has traditionally felt that any sentence other than prison is too lenient for "serious" offenders (although the definition of "serious" differs radically in different parts of the country). Victims' rights groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are especially concerned that these programs, however stringent, do not match the seriousness of the crime. Their criticisms must be carefully considered. However, they cannot be used to justify the historical situation in sentencing and corrections.
Ultimately, alternatives must be judged by their effectiveness in protecting the public. And so far, fewer than 10% of the offenders in the alternative programs have committed new crimes (and most were misdemeanors), compared with about 50% of regular probationers and released prisoners. Not only do these alternative programs cost less; they seem to do a better job of controlling crime. However, we must be careful in interpreting this effect.
Because these programs are still experimental, judges are exercising great caution in sentencing offenders to them. Most programs limit participation to property offenders with minor criminal records, which undoubtedly helps explain the low arrest rates. Consequently, we have no evidence that the bulk of prisoners--and certainly not violent offenders--could be safely put in these programs. However, the results do suggest that some states have an identifiable subset of prisoners who could be. And more than half of all prison admissions nationwide are for property or public-order offenses. Many of these offenders are much like the people in the alternative programs.
By putting more of this type in alternative programs, the states could cut their corrections costs directly and ease the pressure to build more prison space. They might also lower crime rates. First, the programs might free up prison space for more serious, violent offenders. Second, they might be more successful than traditional probation has been in controlling property criminals. The evidence to date suggests that the alternative programs may have something to offer such offenders that neither prison nor probation has.
Although the underlying causes of criminal behavior have never been scientifically proved, crime is strongly correlated with unemployment and substance abuse. This correlation may help explain the alternative programs' higher success rates. By keeping offenders in the community and at work, these programs give them a chance at stable employment. Evidence from Georgia, New Jersey and Oregon shows that most of the offenders who got jobs during intensive supervision kept those jobs afterwards.
In short, these programs are cheaper than imprisonment, seem to control crime better than traditional probation does and prepare offenders for re-entry into society better than either one. Yet, there is still the concern about "just deserts." Because these programs don't lock criminals up, critics believe the punishment is not fitting the crime.
Ironically, this belief may reflect the law-abiding citizen's perceptions of harsh punishment more than it does the serious criminal's. Some of the programs have encountered surprising resistance from offenders. Given a choice between intensive surveillance in the community or a shorter term in prison, many choose prison. In an Oregon experimental program, for example, half of the eligible offenders chose prison over the alternative. From this response, it seems clear that at least some offenders see the conditions imposed by the alternative programs as extremely punitive.
Experience has amply demonstrated that there are no quick fixes or easy answers to the problems of crime or punishment. However, we have learned the hard way that simply building more prisons is not the answer. In a recent opinion survey, the nonprofit Public Agenda Foundation found that Americans strongly support increased use of alternatives to imprisonment. Much of this support is based on the belief that society must try new approaches because, besides being too expensive, the current system is a failure at reducing crime.
It is much too soon for definitive answers about how the alternative programs will affect long-term criminal behavior. But if the programs fulfill their early promise, we will have found more than a short-term response to prison crowding. We will have begun to shape a new, less costly, more humane and more effective approach to reducing crime.