A friend, talking about the vagaries of our overloaded probation system, once quipped, "Probation is a good idea. We ought to try it some time ." He meant that before criticizing or condemning a system, we must give it a proper try. I feel the same way about rehabilitation, which fashionable critics recently have consigned to failure.

Conservatives always have been skeptical about rehabilitating offenders, preferring punishment, public safety and deterrence as rationales for the prison-based correction process. To them, the word "rehabilitation" has been a euphemism, cynically understood to mean coddling criminals.

Recently, hard-liners have been joined by liberals whose patience with their own programs is short. The new trend among liberals is to disparage rehabilitation because it does not work and instead to seek hard-headed, rational, fair alternatives. Nothing the brutal arbitrariness of the parole process, the idiosyncratic and disparate application of the sentencing process, the dangers inherent in coercive "treatment" programs, last year's correctional reformers have become this year's pragmatist.

The neoliberal wisdom is that criminal sanctions can neither eradicate crime nor reform criminals. Since there is no scientific proof that future conduct can be modified or predicted, punishment should be oriented only to past conduct. Thus, the only appropiate considerations for sentencing judges are the seriousness of the offense and the offender's prior criminal record. Unequal sentences will be eliminated because the sociological back ground of offenders will be irrelevant (only one's criminal record, not "the good men do," can live after them under this scheme). Short, certain, equally dispensed sentences will replace sentences tailored to reforming criminals.

Though skeptical about rehabilitation, the new reformers do support open facilities educating training and counseling offenders in institutions, along with using treatment programs when prisoners "volunteer" for them. The antirehabilitation rhetoric, then, amounts to no more than a pitch for sentencing reform. The danger of this view is that it gives too much ideology away: It demeans rehabilitation; it condones and reaffirms the use of the prison system, instead of seeking noninstitutional alternatives; and it concedes systemic faults that are attributable to the foibles of the administrators of the system, not necessarily to the system itself.

The prime issue is the indeterminate sentence. Most states permit-judges to commit offenders for a maximum statutory period. The parole board then has the discretion to release the inmate sooner if the individual situation warrants it. The idea behind indeterminate sentences was to individualize sentencing, to make the punshment fit the criminal as well as the crime. That was, and it still is a good idea.

Once championed by liberal reformers, the indeterminate sentence is now one of their pet complaints. Critics have noted that because parole boards generally are conservative, inmates serving indeterminate sentences have served longer terms - not shorter ones - than inmates serving "flat" term sentences.

It strikes me that returning to rigid, flat sentences for this reason is comparable to banning cars instead of bad drivers. Indeed, in some states that recently have switched to flat sentences, the legislatures have set long terms, doing just what parole boards had done.

One argument for the determinate sentence is its evenhandedness. But should every assault and lie, every offense, be treated the same?

Another argument is that indefinite sentences add a psychological burden. Yet in a recent survey of 104 inmates in five different penal institutes, all but one favored an indeterminate sentence because it provided at least a chance to prove their rehabilitation and to get out.

Answers to fundamental questions about crime and correction simply are unknown; they probably are unknowable. Since that is the case, why not err on the side of at least attempting to make punishment rehabilitative? I do not see how that can be done without, carefully and fairly, individualizing sentences.

In supporting the continuation of the correction system's fundamental partnership with prisons at the same time it disparages the fundamental idea of rehabilitation, the new school of reformers deflects attention from basic ideas. Real reform can come only when these ideas prevail: Institutionalization should be avoided unless the offender is clearly dangerous; reconciliation between victims and offenders should be the goal of the correctional system, and whenever possible victims should get restitution; sentences should be individualized, and they should be carried out whenever possible under supervision in the community by private as well as public agencies; ex-offenders should be used in the system, and they should not be barred from leading normal lives as they are now.

Given the right person, the right program and the right environment, rehabilitation or resocialization or reformation, or whatever you want to call it, can work.