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There's a Better Answer Than Building More Jails

July 03, 1988|Karl Fleming | Karl Fleming was formerly Newsweek bureau chief in Los Angeles and managing editor of KNXT

Consider: Of all the people behind bars in the United States, roughly one in 10 is in jail in Los Angeles County. That's 23,500 people--more than are in jail in 45 of the 50 states.

Jail overcrowding is so egregious that in June a federal court ordered Sheriff Sherman Block to do something. The sheriff, responsible for housing both city and county prisoners--roughly all those awaiting trial and those tried and sentenced to a year or less in jail--responded by announcing the release of 1,200 prisoners: all those being held for trial on bail of $2,500 or less.

Clearly, the system isn't working--at any level. Crime is not abating. And the cost is about to bury us. In the '70s, running the Los Angeles County criminal justice system used up 30% of the county budget. Today the cost is 50%--and still rising. The cost of building jail beds runs between $40,000 and $100,000, depending on the level of security required, and it doubles every two years.

We are now spending $650 million to increase county jail beds from the current 13,000 to 19,000. But by the time these facilities are completed in 1992, the jail population, based on current trends, will be 34,000--a worse situation than now.

What can be done?

-- Speed up the court system. New York City has about the same population as Los Angeles County, but averages only about 14,000 jail inmates. The difference is a round-the-clock court system that processes people much faster than ours. About 250,000 people go through the Los Angeles County criminal justice system annually. More than half of those in jail are awaiting trial. Speeding up the system by 5% to 10%--getting detainees processed quicker with night courts, perhaps with judges working two shifts--would all but solve overcrowding.

--Broaden the work release program. About 1,000 county prisoners live at home, report for county work at 6 a.m. daily. They pick up trash and pull weeds alongside freeways, collect litter on the beaches and clean up the grounds in public parks. Judges could help decrease the jail population by ordering more nonviolent prisoners into such work. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for housing and feeding while prisoners idly pass the days watching TV?

--Let more people out without bail. Block said none of the released prisoners were a threat to public safety, which poses the question of why such people should be jailed in the first place? Other states and cities have been quite successful in releasing pretrial prisoners on their promise to appear in court.

The Los Angeles County OR (own-recognizance) program, now so hopelessly bogged down and behind as to be virtually useless, should be speeded up and made available to more poor people.

--Expand diversion programs. If more judges would give more first-time drug offenders, family squabblers and drunks the alternative of taking education classes to curb their bad habits, in return for having charges dropped, a huge burden on the entire criminal-justice system would be eased.

--Demand restitution. In other states, instead of imposing punishment, judges are sentencing people to get jobs and pay back their victims for such things as bad checks, theft and hit-and-run, rather than have the villains fed and housed and guarded at taxpayer expense--a system in which we pay for their crimes.

--Restore "chain gangs." In former days, prisoner work gangs--"chain gangs" or "road gangs"--were a common sight along America's highways, in parks and other public areas, cutting ditch banks, filling potholes and washes, breaking up rocks ("making little ones out of big ones") and performing other heavy physical chores.

They were quartered in simple wooden barracks-style buildings on "county farms," where they raised their own food, grew their own livestock and worked long days doing something useful to pay back society for their misdeeds.

This system was finally discarded in a wave of post-World War II liberal reform as inhumane; but was "busting rocks" more inhumane than penning up three people in a space built for one, to spend their days in sullen idleness? With buildings and roads falling apart, a sewer system needing to be rebuilt--the whole "infrastructure" collapsing around our ears, what's wrong with making prisoners serve out sentences by the sweat of their brows, doing public good?

Yes, such changes mean making a bold turn away from our current, vengeful "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude toward lawbreakers. It means having judges--currently fearful of being perceived as "soft" on crime--willing to sentence first-time drug offenders, bad-check writers, parking-ticket scofflaws, prostitutes, pimps, family feuders and others who pose no violent threat, to something other than jail time.

It comes down to a dollars-and-cents issue. We simply can't afford to keep building jails and prisons as a solution to the crime problem. And it's not doing any good, anyway.

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