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Prison system needs more ideas, not more room

Nowhere is the philosophical paranoia of the American public and its leaders more apparent than in the ongoing debate over what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people convicted of crimes in this country.

Every discussion involving alternatives to prison begins at the end of the process. It is the overcrowding of the existing prison facilities that forces us to examine different approaches to sentencing.

As long as we view the problem from the bottom up, however, we never will persuade the public to force the legislatures to finance sentencing programs focused on people instead of on buildings. What we seem to be saying is that if we had all the money we would ever need to build and staff prisons, we should continue to lock up everyone convicted of a crime.

For more than 25 years, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has pioneered financing programs that attempt to develop and use alternatives to incarceration. The foundation, through its research and polices, continually has asked the questions that should be the center of the debate.

The first of the questions that we as a society must decide the type and nature of criminal acts that, when committed, will necessitate incarceration. Does the person present such a danger to society because of the nature of the crime committed that he or she must be removed from the general population?

The second question that the foundation raises is: Are there crimes that would not require incarceration? If the answer is yes, can a system of programs be designed that will punish the offender in a less costly and potentially more productive manner than the one currently in place?

People asking these questions often are labeled as "soft on crime" or perhaps "liberal." This is not a debate in which the debaters can be characterized so easily. In fact, a true conservative should require the government to ask the questions and then demand that the answers serve as a basis for developing a cohesive and rational policy of sentencing.

Florida has been in a prison crisis for more than 20 years. In the past four years, more than 20,000 prison beds have been added to an already inadequate and overcrowded system. Yet the system does not work to protect the public, nor does it do anything to reduce the likelihood that a person released from prison will stand at least a 50-50 chance of being arrested again.

In addition, Florida has little or no alternatives to incarceration because every available penny in the Department of Corrections budget is spent on building and maintaining prisons.

Because of overcrowding, most people sentenced to prison serve less than one-third of the imposed sentence. This is true if the person is in prison for possession of crack cocaine or in prison for second-degree murder. More than 50 percent of the available bed space in prison is occupied by people convicted of drug-related offenses.

Therefore, when a person is convicted of a violent crime, the prison system views that person the same as one convicted of a non-violent crime. Does this make any sense?

Policymakers claim that they are interested in a criminal justice system that is victim-sensitive and that provides the greatest level of protection for the public.

In recent weeks, President Bush presented the administration's program for fighting crime. Once again, the major focus is incarceration. The program calls for increasing the number of crimes for which a convicted person can be sentenced to a minimum mandatory sentence. However, it does not address the issue of the cost of incarceration compared with the benefits of other alternatives.

Prisons are a necessary part of a credible criminal justice system. The public views incarceration as the best way to protect itself from dangerous people who by their acts have proved themselves unworthy to continue to enjoy the benefits of the society.

The competition for a shrinking share of public money demands more effectiveness for every government program. Prison construction is extremely expensive. Staffing prisons is even more expensive. But even these costs are less than the cost of maintaining thousands of inmates in prison.

In our current system, the limited inmate space and the overwhelming and growing inmate population must be altered.

Current attempts to solve the problem involve building more and more prisons. This can work _ up to a point _ and we seemed to have reached that point. Common sense then dictates that we look at alternatives to incarceration for certain crimes.

There always will be a need to imprison extremely serious, violent or habitual offenders. However, when you imprison someone for a white-collar, non-violent or minor crime, there is logically less available space for those who society has judged should remain in prison for extended periods. When this happens, no one can benefit from a criminal justice system that refuses to address the problems and then to act courageously to correct inequities.

Dwight M. Wells is a lawyer practicing in Tampa. He has been involved in the movement for alternatives for incarceration for many years.

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