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In the Penal Colony

SENSIBLE JUSTICE: Alternatives to Prison.\o7 By David Anderson (The New Press: 192 pp., $25)\f7 ; CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA.\o7 By Elliott Currie (Metropolitan Books: 220 pp., $22.50)\f7

September 06, 1998|BARRY KRISBERG | Barry Krisberg is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the nation's oldest and largest nongovernmental criminal research organization

"In our zeal to punish offenders, we should not punish ourselves." This was the observation of Milton Rector, one of America's leading penologists. Yet beginning in the 1980s, Americans completely ignored this sage advice and embarked on an incarceration binge. In 18 years, the proportion of our fellow citizens confined in prisons and jails has increased by more than 200%. Almost 30% of African American males will experience incarceration at some point during their young adult lives. Taxpayers spend more than $35 billion a year to operate the U.S. corrections system, and hundreds of billions have been sunk into building new prisons and jails. In many states, spending on prisons represents nearly 10% of the total state budget. In California, the prison system consumes more public revenue than the University of California system. Prison guards and their powerful unions have negotiated salaries and benefits that exceed those of teachers. Expanded prison spending has required most states and counties to cut back on financial support for primary education, health care, transportation, recreation, libraries, culture and the arts.

Tragically, this growth in incarceration has had little impact on violent crime; rates have remained sadly stable over the past 30 years. There is no evidence that the booming prison industry has helped us tame the scourge of drug addiction in our communities. The current small decline in America's horrific crime rate (much higher than that of any other developed nation) can be largely attributed to a strong economy, favorable demographics as the population ages, more preventive police practices and greater attention to at-risk children and their families. Still, the public remains deeply concerned about the crime problem. A recent Field Poll reported that 66% of Californians believe that crime is one of the top problems facing the state.

If we evaluated our investment in prisons as we would review a stock portfolio, we would be firing our investment advisor and trying to cut our losses. In their books, Elliott Currie and David Anderson present compelling cases for the fraudulent nature of the "get tough" revolution. They also point to well-documented alternatives for the years ahead. Currie is an extraordinary sociologist, who writes like a journalist, and Anderson, a former New York Times editorial writer, is a thoughtful journalist who thinks like a social scientist. Although the material overlaps in places, Currie focuses more on the causes of crime and societal solutions to violent crime; Anderson provides excellent detailed descriptions of successful corrections programs that can save money and lives.

Currie's "Crime and Punishment in America" presents a dizzying array of research and statistics that demythologizes the criminal justice policies that have dominated the national debate over the past two decades. He offers compelling evidence against the charge that the justice system is extremely lenient. The assertion that increased incarceration is cost effective is convincingly disproved.

Currie shows that crime is inextricably linked to social factors, especially economic forces. The crime jingoists have argued that crime is caused by bad or immoral people who just happen to be located at the bottom of the economic ladder. Currie has not forgotten the dictum of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who admonished us to understand the personal troubles of individuals in terms of the "public issues of social structure," the distribution of power, wealth and privilege in the society.

The crime jingoists have argued that more prisons and more old-time religion are our best hopes to combat crime. In contrast to this view, Currie offers three distinct and complementary strategies to reduce crime. His first strategy focuses on early intervention and prevention with high-risk families. The crime jingoists have told us that nothing works and that prevention is pork. But successful prevention efforts include Head Start, family visiting programs, intensive mentoring programs, and intensive educational and jobs programs. Even U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno argues that child nutrition, medical care and proper parenting skills are more important to public safety than correctional bricks and barbed wire--the first attorney general to do so since Robert Kennedy. While prevention funding has been politicized, there is evidence that new community collaborations are getting better at directing early intervention dollars to effective programs. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is assisting nearly 40 communities to develop comprehensive approaches to youth crime, emphasizing programs of proven effectiveness.

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