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Paying a debt to society?

Emmanuel Mobley, small-time thief and burglar from Brooksville, was given a choice last month: probation or prison. He chose prison. Said Mobley: "I just didn't think that I could do three years on probation without getting back into trouble. When I asked my lawyer, he told me that if I took 15 months, I would probably just ride the bus up there (to prison), get my paperwork done and then come back home. It made sense to me." It is making sense to other convicts in Florida as well. Rather than be forced to work at a steady job, to pay the state fees for probation, to pay back victims of crime, to function in society under supervision, more and more small-time criminals are taking the easy way out. They go to prison, spend a few months on public welfare, and their debt to society is erased.

This is punishment?

Three years into his massive prison buildup in Florida, Gov. Bob Martinez is paying a price for his free-spending, free-wheeling approach to criminal justice. The price is not just the $1.1-billion he has proposed in the state budget to operate prisons next year _ triple the budget he inherited. It is not just the Charles Streets, the violent inmates who return to the streets to do more violence because the state is filling prison cells with common thieves and first-time offenders. The price also is being increasingly defined by the Emmanuel Mobleys of the crime world. It is the Mobleys who, in their own simple way, show the Martinez prison policy for what it is: a costly failure.

When a man being sentenced for burglary decides to take prison over probation, what is he saying?

He is saying, correctly, that he won't be in prison long. That's part of the folly of trying to put every criminal behind bars. Since Martinez began his unprecedented prison expansion, the percentage of time each inmate serves on a sentence has actually decreased. The reason is that the governor and lawmakers see prison as the only way to punish lawbreakers. They want to throw even nonviolent, first-time offenders in prison. Last year, 43,940 criminals were sent to Florida prisons _ more than the entire inventory of prison beds, all of which were already full. The number of criminals sent to prison each year is expected to reach 101,188 by 1995 unless the state gets a handle on its sentencing policy. Even Martinez admits the state can't afford to lock up every criminal.

In choosing prison, Mobley is also saying it isn't much of a deterrent, or punishment for that matter. To the extent that prison overcrowding has limited the state's ability to require meaningful inmate work, Mobley is probably right. He might spend his days playing ball, or lifting weights, getting in shape physically, but not otherwise, for his return to society.

Prosecutors will argue that, if Florida had enough prison cells to assure every inmate served a full term, Mobley would change his mind. But that argument only perpetuates the state's criminal-justice fraud. It is precisely because state attorneys and sheriffs want to throw every offender in prison that Mobley faces the prospect of serving little time. In the past four years, Florida has built 20,353 new prison beds, but the gap between beds and new inmates to fill them is only growing. Martinez has built prisons all right. What he has not done is to make rational choices about criminal sentencing, about which criminals need to be behind bars and which ones don't.

In this season of political symbols, Mobley is a potent one. He is the larger debt Martinez is creating by taking money from children and education to finance a welfare state for criminals. Mobley shows why prison justice isn't always justice, why other sanctions are sometimes more effective, cheaper and tougher. In paying his debt, Mobley is leaving a larger one for society.