Their budgets in crisis, governors, legislators, and prison officials across the nation are making or considering policy changes that will likely remove tens of thousands of offenders from prisons and parole supervision.
David Crary, Prisons Feeling Budget Crunch. A.P.

So, common cents may accomplish what common sense could not. Alternatives to prison always made sense, fiscally and as a correctional approach; but it took the current budget stress to force public officials to consider other, better ways to deal with many of the people convicted of crimes.

Not all crimes and criminals, mind you. One shouldn’t romanticize all convicts as victims of miscarriages of justice or products of social deprivations. Many are dangerous people and unlikely to change, and thus need to be segregated from society. They subscribe to no decent social contract, and we need to protect ourselves from them.

But of the approaching 2 million people in the prison system, many do not need to be there. For them, we are wasting scarce public funds and unique correctional opportunities by incarcerating them. Prisons are bleak, counterproductive and expensive.

First, there should be a moratorium on new prison construction. Building a prison is an expensive, centuries-long commitment. Instead, existing space should be rented as needed; old buildings should be readapted for better use, or torn down. Convicts could be put to work doing so, paying off their social debts by improving the infrastructure.

Second, for the majority of prisoners, there are better alternatives to prison sentences that are effective and cost-conserving. Experts know the programs that have proven successful. They should be used whenever possible and feasible.

Community services on a grand scale would require convicts to reconcile with their victims and their society. If there is no danger of violent crimes, why not require convicts to make good on their debt to crime victims and society generally? Once that is done, all parties move on, corrected. There are models of such programs, where criminals and their victims make a contract for reconciliation, and the correctional system oversees satisfactory performance.

Deflecting convicts to treatment programs, where possible, also makes sense, and keeps people out of the system at the same time that it copes with the problems that got them into trouble.

Jails, pretrial detention centers, are used to do more than assure defendants show up for trial. They are poorhouses, used to warehouse the dregs of society — poor people who can’t afford bail, alcoholics, addicts, short-term prisoners. But they serve no good purpose besides warehousing people. They are costly, and serve no good purpose, as a rule. Visit one; decent citizens will be repulsed by what they are underwriting.

I’ve been advocating finding alternatives to prisons for decades. Maybe the looming depression will prompt applying intelligent approaches to this problem.

Ronald Goldfarb, a Washington attorney and author, has written several books about the American correctional system, bail system and jails.