AN ALTERNATIVE FOR PRISON



America's prisons have been called "graduate schools for crime." It

stands to reason: Take a group of people, strip them of possessions and

privacy, expose them to constant threats of violence, overcrowd their

cell-

block, deprive them of meaningful work, and the result is an embittered

underclass more intent on getting even with society than contributing to

it.

Prisons take the nonviolent offender and make him live by violence. They

take the nonviolent offender and make him a hardened killer. America has

to wake up and realize that the current structure of our penal system is

failing terribly. The government has to devise new ways to punish the

guilty, and still manage to keep American citizens satisfied that our

prison

system is still effective.

Americans pay a great deal for prisons to fail so badly. Like all big

government solutions, they are expensive. In the course of my studies

dealing with the criminal justice system, I have learned that the

government spends approximately eighty-thousand dollars to build one cell,

and $28,000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up. That's about the same

as the cost of sending a student to Harvard. Because of overcrowding, it

is

estimated that more than ten-billion dollars in construction is needed to

create sufficient space for just the current prison population. The plain

truth is that the very nature of prison, no matter how humane society

attempts to make it, produces an environment that is inevitably

devastating

to its residents. Even if their release is delayed by longer sentences,

those

residents inevitably return to damage the community, and we are paying

top dollar to make this possible.

Why should tax payers be forced to pay amounts to keep

nonviolent criminals sitting in prison cells where they become bitter and

more likely to repeat their offenses when they are released? Instead, why

not put them to work outside prison where they could pay back the

victims of their crimes? The government should initiate work programs;

where the criminal is given a job and must relinquish his or her earnings

to

the victim of their crime until the mental and physical damages of their

victims are sufficed. A court will determine how much money the criminal

will have to pay for his restitution costs, and what job the criminal will

have

to do to pay back that restitution.

The most obvious benefit of this approach is that it takes care of the

victim, the forgotten person in the current system. Those who experience

property crime deserve more than just the satisfaction of seeing the

offender go to prison. Daniel Van Ness, president of Justice Fellowship,

has said:

All the legal systems which helped form western law

emphasize the need for offenders to settle with victims. The

offense was seen as primarily a violation against the victim.

While the common welfare had been violated and the

community therefore had an interest and responsibility in

seeing that the wrong was addressed and the offender

punished, the offense was not considered primarily a crime

against the state as it is today. (76)

Restitution offers the criminal a means to restore himself-to undergo a

real

change of character. Mere imprisonment cannot do this; nothing can

destroy a man's soul more surely than living without useful work and

purpose. Feodor Dostoevsky, a prisoner for ten years during czarist

repression, wrote, "If one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly,

to

inflict on him the most terrible of punishments...one need only give him

work on a completely useless and irrational character" (77). This is

exactly

what goes on in the "make work" approach of our prisons and it is one of

the contributing factors to prison violence. To quote Jack Kemp, author

of

Crime and Punishment in Modern America:

The idea that a burglar should return stolen goods, pay for

damage to the house he broke into and pay his victims for

the time lost from work to appear at a trial meets with

universal support from the American people. There is, of

course, a reason that the concept of restitution appeals to

America's sense of justice. Restitution also provides an

alternative to imprisonment for nonviolent criminals,

reducing the need for taxpayers to continue building

prisons. (54)

Working with the purpose of paying back someone that has been wronged

allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real consequences of his

actions.

Restitution would be far less expensive than the current system.

Experience shows that the cost per prisoner can be as low as ten percent

of

that of incarceration, depending on the degree of supervision necessary.

Removing nonviolent offenders from prison would also relieve

overcrowding, eliminating the necessity of appropriating billions more

public dollars for