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Overhauling the US prison system

America cannot feign surprise at the recent instances of prison unrest or at the swelling ranks of repeat offenders. We all know that our system of correcting and rehabilitating criminals is not working. Yet an elected official who calls for prison reform can expect to be attacked as a ''coddler of criminals.'' Thus deprived of meaningful dialogue on the subject, the public is denied the full picture of the horrendous costs and the abysmal performance of our prisons.

Thirty-nine states are under court order to reduce their crowded prisons. The state and federal inmate population has doubled in the last ten years and is growing at the fastest rate in the history of our country. Conventional solutions to prison overcrowding, such as doubling up prisoners and diverting others to vacant jail cells, are no longer available. For the first time we are being forced to acknowledge the sobering prospect, as did Chief Justice Burger in his annual report on the judiciary, that we face ''prison explosions'' unless the overcrowding dilemma is immediately addressed.

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Why not build more prisons and jails? The answer is simple: The money is not there. State and local budgets have been racked by the recession, and discretionary funds at the federal level are nonexistent. Prison experts estimate that well over $10 billion is needed to correct the current problem of overcrowding. The cost for each bed in a new prison ranges from $50,000 to $80, 000. When one adds to that figure the estimated $15,000 annual upkeep for each prisoner, it becomes clear that the cost to maintain current practices is prohibitive.

Cost consideration aside, there are persuasive arguments to the effect that our entire approach to corrections should be changed. The recidivism rate alone makes clear the fact that our prisons, far from rehabilitating offenders, are increasing the likelihood that a released convict will resort to crime. It is the rare inmate who can sustain the deadening boredom of a pointless existence for several years in cramped quarters and then return to society better for that experience. If one argues that a prisoner deserves whatever he or she gets while behind bars, then one must accept the notion that society deserves what it gets when the prisoner is eventually released. We can neither afford nor tolerate a system of corrections which punishes not only law-breakers but law-abiding citizens as well.

What has blocked an enlightened understanding of the corrections dilemma? A primary factor is the tendency to stereotype all prisoners as murderers and rapists, when in actuality one half of the nation's prison population is serving time for nonviolent crimes. A system of corrections which treats the violent and nonviolent alike, which combines first offenders with hardened, repeat offenders , and which makes negligible efforts to counsel or rehabilitate anyone, is one destined for disaster.

The American concept of corrections must change. Violent criminals and repeat offenders belong in prison, as do criminals for whom anything less than a prison sentence would unduly minimize the seriousness of their offenses. But the time has come to dispel the notion that criminal sentencing necessarily calls for imprisonment. Our current approach to corrections is fundamentally flawed because it does not require the criminal to account for the damage he has done to an identifiable victim's life. Present law makes the criminal only repay some vague concept of ''society.'' Community service, restitution, and strict probation are other viable sentencing options that deserve consideration because they instill a sense of responsibility in the offender to account for the damage he has done to both the victim and the community.

The public needs to know the unvarnished truth about the dreadful situation facing the American system of corrections. Our prison system is a ticking time bomb. Unless we take seriously the need to conduct a thorough overhaul of the system, Chief Justice Burger's premonition of ''prison explosions'' will be upon us. Unfortunately, it is always the taxpayer who has to foot the clean-up bill.

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