I must be misreading this magazine piece. It seems to say that locking criminals up is a liberal idea, while treating them in nonprison settings is conservative. No, that's what it says, all right. Even the title of the article is "Crime and Restitution: The Alternative to Lock-Them-Up Liberalism." By Charles Colson.
Actually, Colson, former special counsel to President Nixon, makes a pretty good case for alternative sentencing, including restitution to victims of nonviolent crime. Overcrowded prisons, the budget-wrecking cost of building new prison space, and the high rate of recidivism all point to alternative sentencing.
The trouble with the Colson piece is that he finds it necessary to bash liberals in order to make what is essentially a nonpolitical point.
Maybe it's because he thinks readers of the conservative Policy Review have to be coaxed into opening their minds. Maybe it's because he doesn't want anybody to think that his seven months in jail (for a Watergate-related offense) have turned him soft on criminals. Or maybe he just likes bashing liberals.
Whatever, he is at pains to make imprisonment a "liberal" concept, citing everything from Quaker-inspired "penitentiaries" to Ramsey Clark to those who contend that crime is related to unemployment.
Then: "This liberal vision has led to a tragic, widespread failure. And many conservatives who call for more prisons, I suspect, are unaware of the liberal heritage that has brought us our prison crisis . . .
"The answer is to be found in a distinctly conservative vision of criminal justice," with punishment, rather than rehabilitation, its goal.
But isn't punishment the one thing prisons really can do? How is conservative punishment different from liberal punishment?
Colson is a bit fuzzy on the point, but he does conclude that, given the combination of cost and overcrowding, it doesn't make sense to "jam prisons full of embezzlers, check forgers, petty thieves and the like." Violent criminals must be locked up, of course, but the rest should be put to work -- even if jobs have to be created for that purpose -- to repay the victims of their crimes.
"Examples of this approach to punishment can be found as far back as Old Testament law," he says. "The thief who stole an ox was required to pay his victim five head of cattle." How does that translate into modern terms? A big-screen TV for one VCR?
Actually, I like it. I have long objected to the fiction that crimes are against the state, a theory that transforms the actual victim into little more than a witness to somebody else's proceedings.
I also agree -- who doesn't? -- with Colson's contention that restitution is far less costly than imprisonment. But then he makes this interesting claim for restitution:
"Working with the purpose of paying back someone you have wronged allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real consequences of his actions. The psychologist Albert Eglash argues that 'restitution is something an inmate does, not something done for or to him. . . . Being reparative, restitution can alleviate guilt and anxiety, which can otherwise precipitate further offenses.' "
So there it is. Colson, chairman of an organization called Prison Fellowship, wants to make people better. If the Quakers and other "liberals" sought to improve criminals by giving them a place to be penitent for their sins, Colson the conservative would accomplish it by helping the criminal to "understand and deal with the real consequences of his action."
Well, I'm not all that sanguine about making people better, although I do believe in providing assistance in case they decide to improve themselves. Alternative sentencing is not a theory but a necessity. When our prisons are overcrowded to the point where some judges have stopped ordering new commitments, when an explosion of drug-related crime is adding to the backlog of criminals awaiting punishment, something has to change.
Those changes can include electronic monitoring, community-based facilities, drug rehabilitation and, yes, well-run restitution programs.
That's not conservative or liberal. That's just common sense.