Practical Alternatives to Jail’s Fast Shuffle

<i> Barry J. Nidorf is chief probation officer of Los Angeles County</i>

The local manifestation of the nationwide epidemic of overcrowded jails, prisons and juvenile facilities became evident recently when Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block was forced, under federal court order, to increase the number of early releases of county prisoners.

News of the announcement was accompanied by a disturbing photograph. It showed a just-released inmate, a smile on his face, who had served his 14-day county jail sentence in 14 hours--or at the rate of 2 1/2 minutes on the hour.

Confronted with jail sentences shortened because of overcrowding, law-abiding citizens must wonder what kind of justice we have anymore. They must sense that overcrowding is undermining the only weapon the courts can use to protect the community--the threat of criminal sanction.

Criminal sanction is the “cost” that society attaches to crime to make it unrewarding to criminals. When the cost of a crime has to be reduced so much that a 14-day jail sentence can be served in 14 hours, what message is sent? The obvious message to criminals is that their crimes won’t cost them much at all.


With no end in sight to the serious jail overcrowding problem, it is time that the community look to new criminal sanctions that can protect its citizens and satisfy the demands of justice without depending on scarce jail beds. Jail may be where most citizens want criminals to be, but that is not reality today. There is just not enough space to hold any but the most dangerous and violent criminals. New sanctions, strong enough to deter, are needed for criminals who are released early--or do not go to jail at all--because of overcrowding.

But if new sanctions are not found and used, a never-ending cycle of greater overcrowding and earlier release will embolden confirmed criminals to continue committing crimes, while failing to discourage would-be criminals.

Which new sanctions are needed? Examples include “house arrest,” electronic monitoring of criminals confined to their homes on probation; “work sentencing,” using supervised crews of probationers sentenced to work improving community buildings, parks, roads and other public areas, or “work furlough,” a program in which employed probationers work their regular jobs by day and are sentenced to stay in a contracted residential center by night.

Sanctions like these are obviously not appropriate for every criminal. Violent offenders and habitual criminals belong in jail or prison. But for petty criminals and even many non-violent felons, such sanctions are not only appropriate but needed. They help to mitigate the jail overcrowding crisis by imposing penalties right in the community. They attach a cost to crime that is more demanding than just sitting in jail for a few hours. Coupled with a beefed-up, quick-to-respond surveillance capability, these community-based sanctions are effective, tough and affordable.


For the past five years the Los Angeles County Probation Department, with money and personnel provided by the Board of Supervisors, has been developing and testing such sanctions. The probation department has been working more closely than ever with police and prosecutors to develop stronger, more responsive surveillance. The department has created a joint surveillance capability with the police so that now, in selected areas of the county, patrol officers as well as probation officers enforce court orders on probationers. With the district attorney, the department acts to move violent and dangerous criminals out of the community and into state prison immediately if they violate the law again.

Necessary as new sanctions and police-probation-legal partnerships are, they are not easy to create and operate when money and staff are greatly limited. The probation department has had to shift resources and staff to create special sanction programs, but they are worth it. They not only provide clear and immediate penalties, they do so at a cost far less than that of incarceration--and with deterrent results and victim benefits greater than jail can provide.

It is unlikely that policy-makers will fund alternatives to incarceration as long as they believe that their constituents accept confinement as the only appropriate sanction for crime. In fact, any alternative is all too easy to reject because dollars spent for these programs are like an investment. The return (reduction of crime rate) is not achieved during the current budget year. On the other hand, jails and prisons, though far more expensive, are easy to point to as evidence of a strong committment to solving the crime problem.

Recent RAND Corp. research has demonstrated that local corrections can be more effective than prison in reducing recidivism. The research is there, the expertise of the local corrections staff is there, but the political will to fund these community sanctions is not there.

Effective sanction programs, “prisons without walls,” must have community support. Faced with the jail overcrowding crisis, the community needs to decide how to best protect itself from crime. Do we want to continue to base expectations for criminal sanctions on jails that are no longer available except for the most dangerous criminals? Or should we begin to base expectations for criminal correction programs on corrections that are readily available and that can effectively improve protection for the community?

By deciding to develop community-based sanctions, we can reserve jail for those who really need it and still attach a real cost to crime.