Country singer Johnny Cash immortalized inmates’ miseries in his classic song “Folsom Prison Blues.” But now, as slammers across the country run out of space and resources, prison officials are feeling pretty blue as well.
Nobody likes these expensive, ugly messes, so why not explore alternate punishments that keep people out of lockup?
The choices range from probation to public shaming. For drunken driving convictions, some offenders have been made to drive around with signs pasted on the vehicles declaring they’ve been convicted. Others have been ordered to install Breathalyzer devices that prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.
Legal experts suggest the skills of corporate criminals could be used to offset rising costs in state prisons. “I personally feel we should have a program that lets corporate criminals go to low-income schools and teach,” says Stephen Saltzburg, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Effective Criminal Sanctions. This should be combined with hefty fines for corporate criminals, he says, and schools should seek parents’ approval before unleashing criminals on their children in the classroom.
For minors in danger of landing in prison, there might be no better cure than a heart-to-heart talk with convicts. The In My Shoes program in Chicago tries to ensure these adolescents never need to step into the shoes of those who’ve walked the road to prison.
Prison still seems to be the best bet for violent crimes, defined by the U.S. Justice Department as homicide, rape, robbery and assault. And with a prison population of over 2.1 million, the U.S. relies heavily on prison time to punish criminals and prevent crime.
Of course, the prevention part doesn’t seem to be working very well. A 2002 federal study tracked inmates for three years after their release from state prisons in 1994 and found that 67% committed a crime within the next three years.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney’s office is one of the state bodies working on alternatives aimed at reducing high recidivism rates. District Attorney Charles Hynes says the office’s star program, Drug Treatment Alternatives-to-Prison, took off after it was redesigned to specifically target second-felony offenders. “When faced with the prospect of mandatory jail time, offenders do not oppose rehab,” he says. Statistics show that those who complete the program are three and a half times likelier to get a job than they were before their arrest. And it costs half of what prison time would.
Several other initiatives targeted at keeping people out of prison or ensuring they don’t return are community-based, and this is considered crucial to their success. Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern says community-based efforts have helped slash crime rates in Brooklyn, where index crimes–the FBI’s most serious crimes–declined by 74% since 1990. And thanks to reduced crime, real estate is booming in the area.
Not everyone is sold on these ideas. Alternatives to prison are workable only in a limited number of cases, and proposed sentences need to adhere to the federal sentencing guidelines, says U.S. District Judge John Keenan. His alternatives usually are community service and probation.
But in a country with the world’s largest prison population, and where some states, like California, are accused of devoting more resources to the upkeep of criminals than on education–alternate punishments are now a question of necessity.
Ten alternatives to prison.
1. Drug Treatment Alternatives-To-Prison
This program, started in October 1990, targets nonviolent drug addicts with
previous convictions. Those who qualify enter a guilty plea and get a
deferred sentence that allows them to enroll in a residential drug-treatment
program, which ranges from 15 to 24 months. Addicts who successfully
complete the program have their charges dismissed. But if they don’t make it
through, they are taken back to court and sentenced to prison time.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who initiated the project, said
its graduates were 87% less likely than others to return to prison. The
pioneering initiative is now run in at least 15 counties across New York
2. Faith-Based Rehabilitation Programs (InnerChange Freedom Initiative)
Several states across the country have programs that use religious
counselors from the community to help prisoners on their journey out of
jail. In 1997, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Prison
Fellowship, an international nonprofit prison ministry, launched what is
believed to be the first such comprehensive effort. The program offers
education, work, life skills and mentoring, but religious instruction is the
crux of the effort. Many of these programs cater to Christian prisoners, but
some also include Jews and Muslims.
3. Pay For Your Prison Stay
In 1996, jails in Missouri, Connecticut and New Mexico began charging
inmates for their room and board. Three years before that, Congress approved
legislation to allow the Federal Bureau of Prisons to collect user fees from
inmates to cover the cost of their incarceration. Prisoners pay anywhere
between $8 and $65 or more for segregated cells and marginally better food
4. The Project For Violence Prevention (Chicago)
Yes, we spent our childhoods hearing that prevention is better than cure.
But physician Gary Slutkin wanted to reiterate that message to high-crime,
gang-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago, which has a murder rate approximately
four times the national average. Starting in 1995, Slutkin worked with small
teams to build on existing alliances in the worst-hit neighborhoods. People
who had lived in these neighborhoods formed outreach teams to interact with
juveniles in danger of landing in prison. The University of Illinois’ School
of Public Health, a violence management team under Slutkin, monitors
shootings throughout Chicago on a 24-hour basis. When a shooting is
reported, project members from the neighborhood and churches gather at the
scene to express their disapproval, through rallies, setting up monuments or
5. Classes And Fees: For The Rich
This isn’t a reality yet. But how about letting corporate criminals teach in
low-income schools? Plenty of them have been educated at the finest of
schools, so why should they just sit around gazing out their prison windows
on the taxpayers’ dime? asks Stephen Saltzburg, chairman of the American Bar
Association’s Task Force on Effective Criminal Sanctions. Of course unlike
regular teachers, participants in this program would be escorted to school
and back to ensure they don’t skip class.
6. Ignition Interlocks
Judges in states including Maryland and California have made drunken drivers
install Breathalyzer devices in their vehicles. The ignition interlocks
prevent the vehicle from starting until the driver blows into the
mouthpiece, and the device confirms he or she hasn’t been drinking.
7. Live In Slummy Buildings
In February 1988, a Brooklyn, N.Y., landlord found guilty of keeping his
tenants in appalling conditions was sentenced to spend 15 days in his
building, in the freezing cold and alongside leaky pipes and rats. He had to
wear an electronic ankle cuff that ensured he didn’t stray beyond a 100-foot
radius. The sentence was later popularized in a 1991 motion picture, The
Super. Today, such sentences are not unusual across the country.
8. Chemical Castration
In 1996, California became the first state to pass a law requiring chemical
castration for repeat child molesters. The procedure is noninvasive and
reversible. Offenders are usually injected once every three months with a
drug called Depo-Provera, which inhibits hormones that stimulate the
production of testosterone, eliminating sex drive. Once offenders stop
taking the drug, their sex drive returns to normal. At least nine states,
including Florida, Georgia, Oregon and Texas, now have chemical castration
laws in place.
9. Abolish Prisons! Invest The Money In People
It may sound like a radical idea. But locking people up in cages doesn’t
make society safer, says Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, a
national grassroots group that works to abolish prisons. So why not try
something different? “Our goal is to create safer communities. The way to do
that is for the government to invest in housing, education and job training.
We know that communities where these needs are met have lower crime rates,”
The Restorative Justice program, a community-based program run by the
Department of Corrections in Minnesota, actively involves the victim in the
deciding an aggressor’s punishment. The program works with trained mediators
to facilitate meetings between the victim and aggressor, and gives offenders
a chance to voluntarily apologize and explain their actions. Reparation can
take the form of financial payments, going to work for the victim or
community service. Restorative Justice programs rely largely on voluntary
cooperation from all those involved in a crime. If neither party is willing,
formal justice takes its course.
10. The Billboard Project
This isn’t the kind of billboard fame you’d want to court. In a bid to shame
men into staying away from prostitutes, an association in Omaha, Neb., began
a project to put their names and faces on billboards. In October 2003, the
first of its kind billboard went up, warning men that if they were convicted
of soliciting prostitutes, they would see their names on the board. The
community-based initiative began with a grant of $2,500 from a neighborhood