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Jail Alternatives Save Money, Study Finds

December 15, 1987|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Legal Affairs Writer

Experimental community-based sentences for nonviolent criminals, including closely supervised probation and house arrest, can help states save money and avoid building costly prisons without endangering public safety, according to a report released Monday by the RAND Corp.

Criminologist Joan Petersilia, who conducted the nationwide survey of alternative-sentencing programs, said the measures cost as little as $1,350 per convict a year contrasted with the $9,000 to $20,000 states pay to hold each person in prison.

The study, funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that supports programs aiding the poor and disadvantaged, is expected to be used by legislators across the country faced with demands to build additional state prisons at construction costs ranging from $50,000 to $75,000 per cell.

In 1987, Petersilia noted, 37 states and some counties (including Los Angeles) were under court order to upgrade or expand their correctional facilities. Courts have repeatedly held that sending offenders to outmoded and overcrowded prisons amounts to unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment," fueling drives for new prisons.

Urging court jurisdictions to proceed cautiously in enacting the innovative sentencing methods, the criminologist said cost savings cannot be the only consideration.

"Advocates see these programs as effective punishments that are far less costly than prison," Petersilia said, "while opponents, depending on their perspective, fear that they are too lenient, a menace to the public or a violation of civil rights (of the probationer).

"However, preliminary evidence suggests that the programs are diverting selected adult offenders to community-based alternatives without jeopardizing public safety."

Despite fears that offenders left in their communities will escape or run criminal operations from their homes, the study showed that has not happened.

Petersilia said fewer than 10% of these people were rearrested, contrasted with 50% of those on regular probation or parole. (Only one-third of all sentenced prisoners are incarcerated, Petersilia noted, with two-thirds placed on probation.)

Prime candidates for the special sentences, she said, are nonviolent people convicted of crimes against property, such as automobile theft, who comprise the majority of prison populations. Bureau of Justice Statistics, she said, show that 47% of prison admissions nationwide are for violent crimes, and 53% are for property or public disorder offenses.

Popular in the South

The less-stringent sentences are particularly popular in the South, the study showed, where the highest proportion of convicted people traditionally have been incarcerated.

Among the most popular of the experimental sentences are:

- Probation with intensive supervision. Begun in some jurisdictions in 40 states, including Arizona and New York, the sentence includes close monitoring by a supervisor with a very small caseload; payment of a probation supervision fee (about $20 a month); restitution for any property taken from a victim; community service; submission to random urine tests for drugs and alcohol, and a requirement that the person hold a job. Under normal probation programs, some jurisdictions have such heavy caseloads that probationers are seen only once a month or may simply mail in post cards with no personal contact.

- House arrest. Offenders are legally ordered to remain in their homes for the duration of their sentence, leaving only for employment, medical appointments or treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. San Diego and Orange counties, among other jurisdictions, electronically monitor the prisoners to make sure they are where they are supposed to be.

- Boot camp incarceration for short periods. Georgia, Oklahoma and Mississippi confine young, first-time offenders in such facilities with rigid standards and strict military discipline on the theory that someone "shocked" by such a brief brush with the incarceration will be deterred from returning to crime. When released, the offenders are placed on closely supervised probation.

Other Innovations

Other innovative sentencing methods include Long Beach's experiment teaming police with probation officials to provide better monitoring of probationers; New York's supervision of 1,000 jail-bound recidivists performing court-ordered free labor for community groups; Texas' use of halfway house or "quarter house" residential centers for offenders who violate technical probation and parole conditions, and New Jersey and California contracts with members of communities who act as sponsors making sure that a probationer sticks to court-ordered conditions.

The Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. is an independent, nonprofit institution that defines the scope of its work as research and analysis of problems affecting national security and domestic welfare.

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