Getting Prisons Straight

Despite decades of debate and countless efforts at reform, the future of America's correctional system looks almost as bleak as its past. In the 1980s, the nation's incarceration rate more than doubled. Today the U.S. prison population is soaring toward 800,000, and nearly 4 million citizens -- including one of every nine adult African-American males -- is under some form of correctional supervision (in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole). By some definitions, most prisons and jails are overcrowded; by any definition, many of them are filthy, violence-ridden, and lacking in programs that afford inmates a meaningful opportunity to work, achieve literacy, or free themselves from the shackles of substance abuse.

Nor has overcrowding behind bars prevented "overloading" on the streets. Roughly three-quarters of all persons under correctional supervision in this country are in the community under various forms of probation and parole. In many jurisdictions, the typical probation or parole agent now has over 300 cases to manage; in several big-city jurisdictions, the typical caseload exceeds 800. It is thus impossible for these public servants, however dedicated, to assist most offenders in finding jobs and rebuilding their lives. Indeed, it is simply impossible for them to monitor their clients' whereabouts and behavior.

In short, the American corrections system -- a loose confederation of hundreds of federal, state, and local agencies -- is protecting neither the public nor its purse. Corrections is the fastest growing item in most state budgets, and the federal prison system is expanding at a dizzying pace. This situation results from a combination of criminal justice policies, sentencing laws, and demographic trends that, do what we will, cannot be reversed any time soon. There is no escape from the political, administrative, and budgetary problems that now beset American corrections.

There are, however, some rays of hope. Perhaps the most interesting positive development concerns new evidence about the prospects of rehabilitating criminals and the value of rehabilitation programs as tools for managing prisons successfully. This new evidence should cause us to reassess the dismal view of rehabilitation that has prevailed in recent decades.

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