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.