A Post editorial on May 13 posed the prison construction issue as a simplistic choice: "Prisons: Bricks or Breaks?" After setting up a one-dimensional straw man, The Post casually knocks it down: build more prisons -- oh, and by the way let's look at alternatives to incarceration.
Although the District of Columbia has been "granted" limited home rule, the U.S. Senate has intimidated some of our elected representatives into reversing long-held opposition to new prison construction. The Post seems to use the failures of the Maryland work release program as an excuse to justify more prisons, while piously calling for more programs of the type it has just condemned. The Maryland example is cited without placing it in the context of radically reduced funding of the Maryland probation system, which resulted in a caseload of more than 300 probationers for some caseworkers. All alternative programs will fail in the absence of adequate financing.
Alternatives such as work release, intensively supervised probation and work/victim restitution programs cost far less than prisons. For example, a Georgia intensive probation program in which two-person teams supervise no more than 25 probationers cost only $4.75 per day per offender, compared with $24.61 per day for imprisonment. Budget considerations aside, alternative programs dramatically reduce rates of recidivism and therefore the incidence of crime in our city. A California study of youthful offenders, those in the 16- to 22-year-old range, showed a reduction in the rate of recidivism from 69 percent to 25 percent after the start of a program similar to the Federal Youth Corrections Act, which permits intensive, individualized programs in appropriate cases.
Aside from the proven success of alternative programs, the most compelling argument against the building of a new prison is the total absence of a meaningful study of either costs or needs. We do not know which of our prisoners might be dealt with in less restrictive circumstances; what type of facilities are needed; or what the relative costs of our choices might be. We do know that we have cruelly overcrowded prisons; that there are less expensive methods of dealing with offenders; and that there are alternatives that reduce the rates of recidivism and therefore reduce future costs and future crime. It is time to make careful choices; it is not time to allow political expediency to pressure us into expensive short-term solutions.