Reducing risks and protecting our youths: a community mission.

Author:Lehman, Joseph D.
Position:Stemming the Violence

By any measure, Americans excel in hurting one another. Violence has tragically become a part of our daily lives. We are told about it. It occurs just down the street. We cannot look at a newspaper or turn on a radio or television without being confronted with the fact that we are a violent society.

The media-fueled hue and cry over violence and crime has led to a very narrow definition of the problem--the acts of individuals gone bad--and an equally narrow definition of the solution: more prison cell space. The response has been more and more get-tough rhetoric by elected officials, a shift in sentencing responsibility away from judges to mandatory sentencing laws enacted by federal and state legislatures and a prison-building binge that promises to do no more than bankrupt states.

Do we have the political will to turn away from our narrowly focused reactive response to our problems to a preventive, proactive strategy that will reduce the level of violence in our families, our schools and our communities? Our success at stemming the violence hangs in the balance.

What is driving increasing numbers of people to prison today is not crime. Consider, for example, the number of offenders incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons between 1940 and the year 2000. The number remained stable at about 7,000 inmates for almost 40 years, suggesting that there was some degree of stability in the world of crime and punishment between 1940 and 1980.

But a drastic change took place around 1980, with the population leaping to its current level of about 27,000 inmates. Clearly, the increase in the inmate population from 1980 forward is out of proportion to the preceding 40 years. The question is, what accounts for the change? The understandable response from the public and many elected officials is that there has been a commensurate increase in crime. But the truth is, while the prison population on a national level increased by 134 percent between 1980 and 1990, reported crime only increased by 8 percent. In Pennsylvania for the same period, prison populations swelled by 171 percent, while the reported crime increased by 6 percent. It is the policies enacted in response to our crime problem--particularly our war on drugs--not crime itself that is driving up the cost. The question is, to what end?

The Pennsylvania Economy League, a business community think tank, reviewed the cost of our sentencing policies and concluded that "The real problem is that state policies in Pennsylvania which were intended to get tough on criminals have resulted in the increased sentencing of offenders to prison or jail with little regard to either the cost or effectiveness of incarceration."

What we have to show for it all is a burgeoning budget whose growth during the 1980s has been at the expense of other public services. According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Corrections Planning, "Corrections expenditures have increased 263 percent in the 10-year period from 1981 to 1991. By comparison, the operating budgets for the Commonwealth's Departments of Education, Health, Welfare, Transportation and Environmental Resources increased by merely 75 percent during the same 10-year span. The magnitude of this difference was sadly illustrated when we learned that Pennsylvania spends $6,127 per year to educate one child versus $20,000 per year to incarcerate one offender in our state prisons."

Those of us who work in corrections know that the most we can hope for from corrections is to reduce the risk of an individual's further involvement in crime. We join the broader law enforcement community in saying that we cannot solve this country's crime problem. Those of us who work in corrections have long since recognized the folly of focusing on the offender after the crime has occurred.

We know that what we are doing is not working. It has been a failed experiment based on policies fueled by ideology and unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice...

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