By one estimate, the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of its inmate population. That's 2 million jailed people, out of around 8 million worldwide.
Some Americans might view these numbers positively, as a measure of toughness on crime. But more and more, the country's burgeoning prison population stirs a basic question: What can be done to reduce the flow into prison cells?
Part of the answer lies in a hard look at sentencing policies, to be sure the people incarcerated really represent a threat to society and should be behind bars.
But an equally important issue is how to turn young people, who've just started to go wrong, away from crime. One approach is harsh punishment that might deter future crimes. That could be incarceration, or perhaps the penal boot camps employed by some states. A danger, however, is that brutality can creep in, as shown by recent news accounts of abuses in youth boot camps.
Another approach getting increased attention is "restorative justice." Its basic tenet is that young, not-yet-hardened criminals can be turned around by bringing them face to face with how their actions affect their communities. Where possible, meetings are arranged between offenders and victims to underscore the damage done and, possibly, elicit an apology. Some form of restitution, including community service, is typically assigned the offender.
Restorative-justice projects are under way in a number of states, but the most advanced is in Vermont. Local restorative-justice boards, manned by volunteers, handle about one-fifth of Vermont cases in which an offender is put on probation - 1,552 in 1999, twice the 1998 figure.
Of course, Vermont is a small place, and it may be easier there than in urban areas to confront criminals with the effects of their crime. Moreover, hardened, antisocial attitudes may be less engrained in a more rural, small-town environment.
But the basic dynamics of owning up to one's mistakes in front of a panel of community or neighborhood people should be the same anywhere. And the need to awaken the consciences of young people just getting into trouble is a constant.
Clearly, restorative justice entails a major organizing effort. The recruiting of community volunteers to serve on boards like those in Vermont is in itself a big undertaking. And, since these experiments are relatively new, it's unclear just how effective they are in preventing repeat offenses.
But the harsher approaches, such as boot camps, have an unclear record on recidivism, too.
Toughness doesn't have to mean meanness. Approaches that emphasize constructive human contact, like restorative justice, should be given a thorough test. An ever-growing prison population is something the country can't just live with.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society