Sensible Justice: Alternatives to Prison

Sensible Justice: Alternatives to Prison

by David C. Anderson




Sensible Justice explores creative solutions some states and cities nationwide have devised to tackle America’s expensive and controversial prison problem. Former Wall Street Journal and New York Times editor David Anderson spent a year touring the world of “alternative sanctions” that substitute for prison, including work to repay the community or earn restitution for victims; house arrest under high-tech electronic supervision; the military routine of correctional “boot camps;” and counseling for drug addicts and sex offenders.

Alternative sanctions—some thriving quietly even in conservative states where headlines feature harsh law-and-order rhetoric—are demonstrating that rehabilitation works, while saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Just as importantly, Anderson writes, by reinforcing an ethical society’s basic values, these programs allow communities to make sense of criminal justice.

Combining reportage, interviews, and comprehensive research in an original and highly accessible book, Sensible Justice provides a long overdue dose of reasoned and practical options to our current approach to incarceration.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565843899
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 01/28/1998
Pages: 182
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x (d)

About the Author

David C. Anderson is a professional journalist and a former member of the New York Times editorial board who has written for numerous publications including the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. His previous books include Crimes of Justice: Improving the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, and Crime and the Politics of Hysteria: How the Willie Horton Story Changed American Justice.

Read an Excerpt

Community Service: A Productive Way to Punish

Homeless at the age of 46, Martin "boosts" goods from New York City department stores, resells them for money to purchase a week or two at a cheap hotel, then steals again when the money runs out. This way of life often lands him in court, where he faces the standard sentences of sixty or ninety days in jail. Some judges, however, consider that a waste: Cells cost money, and Martin isn't that dangerous. They would rather use the leverage his conviction has given them to get some honest work out of him, and the city's Community Service Sentencing Project gives them a reliable way to do so.

That suits Martin just fine. "Jail is overcrowded," he complains. And you have a lot of gangs going on in jail now.... People get stabbed up, killed." But many other New Yorkers also see the benefit of his alternative sentencing: He has cleared lots for communal gardens, cleaned up a YMCA, painted low-income housing units, and performed other sundry tasks for neighborhood groups around the city. As he and hundreds of other petty criminals do such jobs under supervision of the courts, they demonstrate both the possibilities for saving on jail costs and constructive use of work as a sanction.

Courts have ordered convicts to work in communities for hundreds of years; under ancient legal systems based on restitution, criminals labored to compensate their particular victims for injury or loss. The Romans used criminals as laborers for public works, like road construction, or as galley slaves. In the seventeenth century, offenders in England could be impressed into the navy or indentured to settlers heading out to the colonies.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude but exempts work "as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." For most of United States history, however, courts made little use of forced labor as a criminal sentence.

The modern era of community service sentencing began in 1966 in Alameda County, California. Judges there began imposing work assignments as an alternative to jail for indigent offenders who could not pay traffic fines. Eventually they extended use of the sanction to other low-level convicts as well.

The practice spread across the country in the late 1970s, as the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) pumped out funding to encourage it. Sentencing offenders to unpaid labor inspired some judges' creativity as they combined community service with jail or a fine or both. Offenders did low-level maintenance work for public agencies--clearing litter from playgrounds, sweeping up around public buildings or housing projects, cutting grass and raking leaves in parks, washing cars in an agency motor pool. Others did clerical work or answered phones. Thousands more were sent off to help out at hospitals, nursing homes, social service centers, and other nonprofit organizations.

There were fewer problems with unions than some predicted. Offenders in community service were doing jobs no one else would do, or jobs for which no funds were in place, so they posed no threat to union workers.

Many of these programs withered in the 1980s after the LEAA well dried up. But the concept was established. Judges appreciated the new option--more punitive than traditional probation, less punitive and more productive than incarceration. Community service sentencing provided free labor for public works or nonprofit groups, held offenders accountable for the damage they caused, and perhaps even left them with some new job or life skills to help keep them out of further trouble.

Where no special agencies existed to keep track of people sentenced to community service, probation departments took over. But with no federal program in place to monitor the practice or set standards, wide disparity characterized the imposition of community service sentences and raised troubling questions about its fairness. Debates continued over whether judges gave white middle-class offenders community service sentences for crimes that routinely landed the poor black or Hispanic criminal in prison.

Scholars like Norval Morris and Michael Tonry, in Between Prison and Probation (1990), could theorize about the capacity of community service to afford precision--a judge might measure a sentence to fit the seriousness of a crime in increments of days or even hours. Yet perceptions of how to do so varied widely from place to place as judges, program executives, and criminal-justice bureaucrats debated how punishment for crime ought to equate with work. In New Jersey a recidivist drunk driver might get 90 days of community service; in California the same crime drew only 90 hours.

Larger urban states continued to make extensive use of community service sentencing through the 1980s and 1990s. "Judges like it; it's relatively cheap," observes Alan Harland, a professor of criminology at Temple University who has studied community service sentencing nationwide. In recent years state legislatures have even mandated community service as part of the sentence for certain offenses. "It's seen as punitive and rehabilitative at the same time," says Sandy Seely, former head of the National Community Sentencing Association.

Thus in New Jersey, on any given day, some 40,000 people are under an order of community service. In Harris County, Texas, which surrounds Houston, 5,500 defendants perform community service each month. In the populous counties surrounding Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, judges impose the sentence on thousands of offenders per week. And even in a more rural state like North Carolina, more than 20,000 offenders are performing sentences of community service at any one time.

Judges typically impose the sentences according to formula--for example, six hours of work equal one day of jail. The offenders are interviewed to determine their skills and availability, then matched with jobs at government or nonprofit agencies. The probation department handles enforcement and eventual referral of failed cases hack to the court for resentencing.

Rates of completion vary from place to place, depending on how well the programs are managed and how effectively probation departments or other law enforcement agents actually go after absentees. In New Jersey, Bill Burrell, the state's chief of Adult Probation Services and Community Service, claims a completion rate of 85 percent for his large community service work force, while in Indiana the programs run by Prisoners and Community Together (PACT) show completion rates of about 80 percent. PACT assigns caseworkers to work full time on supervision of offenders, visiting the work sites and documenting their progress. In other places, however, supervision and follow-up are much more haphazard; all too often a court learns that offenders failed to complete community service orders only when they are arrested for new crimes.

It is hard to determine how much community service serves as a substitute for jail or prison. The argument for the sanction looks compelling: Sentencing a person to community service spares the huge expense of incarceration. Yet during the 1970s and early 1980s, researchers seeking out genuine cases of convicts doing community service instead of time behind bars came up relatively empty handed.

In a 1982 article for Corrections Magazine, Kevin Krajick found a few places where community service appeared to have prevented incarceration of juveniles and only two that credibly did so for adults. These were the Community Service Sentencing Project started in New York City by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Indiana-based Prisoners and Community Together program. PACT, Krajick reported, set a policy of accepting only convicted felons or misdemeanants who had pleaded down from felony charges. Program officials estimated that without the community service option, about half of the offenders in the program would have gone to jail or prison.

There is some reason to believe that use of the sanction as a genuine alternative increased in subsequent years. As courts continued to feel the pressures of jail crowding, the advantages of community service appeared more obvious than ever, and judges sought ways to make the most of it. As the federal government brought pressure for tougher laws against drunk driving, for example, community service became the sentence of choice, especially for offenders with stable jobs and families. Seely says that today, even drunk drivers found guilty of vehicular homicide may wind up working off their debt to society at a community service site rather then doing time behind bars. "It's a sentence that the victim's family usually agrees to, she says.

In addition, states that impose escalating sanctions--intensive probation supervision, electronic monitoring, day treatment, restitution--that substitute for jail may include community service as part of a sentence package. And a few jurisdictions have set up programs that substitute community service for jail but call it something else.

California, for example, runs a sizable "work release" program for people who otherwise would be serving jail terms of a few days or a week. Offenders sentenced to the custody of the county sheriff may qualify if they have roots in the community, family ties, and a nonviolent record. Elsewhere work release means allowing inmates to work at paying jobs on the outside as they approach the end of jail or prison confinement. But California's work release offenders never see the inside of a county jail. Instead they report for work cleaning beaches and parks, painting public buildings, or doing other work under constant supervision of a deputy sheriff. In most places that would he called a community service sentence.

New York's Community Service Sentencing Project (CSSP), funded by contracts with New York City and New York State, manages a caseload of 50 to 60 offenders on any given day, for a total of 1,800 per year. It began operations in 1979 as an experiment of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group known for its innovations and research on urban problems, but now operates as part of a freestanding agency.

The CSSP's long record of sound management gives it formidable credibility with the courts and a good reputation with politicians and the news media. CSSP offenders perform some 90,000 hours of community work per year; recidivism rates are no higher than for offenders sent to jail. More than 70 percent of offenders sentenced to CSSP successfully complete their work assignments. About 75 percent of those who fail, go back before the courts; overall nearly 90 percent of offenders sentenced to the program either do the work or go to jail.

That level of completion satisfies the courts. "It's regarded highly by the judges, says Justice Charles Solomon, supervising judge of the Manhattan Criminal Court. It's more meaningful to have someone do two weeks of real work than to sit in a jail cell for two weeks." He reiterates that the program has "a lot of credibility. If someone doesn't do it, we'll know. We'll see them back again."

By now the CSSP's representatives are familiar figures in city courtrooms. Their job is to screen defendants as they come into court and participate in plea negotiations with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Defendants with violent records are eliminated, as are those with more than 50 prior arrests. But so are those with no priors at all, on the assumption that they would not be sentenced to jail in any event. The defendants also must submit to an interview with court representatives who insist that they have a verifiable home address and otherwise tell the truth.

Those who survive the grilling gain a strong advocate. The court representative goes before the judge and prosecutor to argue for community service, emphasizing the offender's ties to the community, the need to hold down jail crowding, and the benefits a neighborhood will reap from the offender's work.

Once sentenced, the offenders are told to report to CSSP locations in the basements of housing projects. The work day starts with coffee and doughnuts, followed by a hit of leaf raking, snow removal, or trash pickup to compensate the project for use of its space. The supervisors take attendance and dispatch members of the CSSP enforcement team--set up in the late 1980s to shore up completion rates--to go after the no-shows. The enforcers make two or three attempts to find recalcitrants or roust them out of bed. After that they go to court for arrest warrants.

Meanwhile vans take the rest of the group to the day's main work sites. Unlike many other community service programs, CSSP offenders work only for small non-profit organizations. A typical day might find them digging soil and hauling gravel to prepare a community garden, clearing construction debris at a parochial school, or painting the halls of a nursing home. From the beginning the project rejected work for city and state agencies. There were potential conflicts with civil service unions and the work requirements were less flexible.

"With the nonprofits, we can call up and say we have a crew ready to come over now," explains Joel Copperman, the program's executive director. "Try saying that to a government agency." Besides, he adds, work for the neighborhood groups "seems to be the most valued. It's been our way of giving back to the community in the most direct way."

Developing the worksites became a full time job for Clayton Williams, an ex-convict who found employment at Vera and became a member of the staff that first implemented CSSP. He roamed the neighborhoods of New York City looking for promising patches of urban decay: a vacant lot in need of greening, a dilapidated building intended to house the homeless mentally ill, a parochial school's leaf-strewn play yard.

His efforts and the work of the CSSP offenders don't go unappreciated. "They come out and do everything," says Idonia Johnson, a neighborhood leader who called on CSSP when she and her neighbors needed help with heavy digging to turn an empty lot into a garden. "Planting, cleaning, doing the beds. They're very nice to work with. We never had any problem with them." (Indeed, for a time Ms. Johnson felt so grateful that she prepared sumptuous chicken dishes to bring over for lunch, causing some competition among the offenders for assignment to her site.)

The crews work under the constant supervision of CSSP staff membersrecruited for their street smarts and their ability to handle occasional arguments, bouts of recalcitrance, or pleas for time off to take care of urgent business. A standard response to the person with a problem at the welfare office or a sick relative: How would you handle it if you were in jail? At the beginning and at the end of the shift, however, offenders have a chance to meet with caseworkers who assess needs and try to solve problems that might get in the way of reporting for work. An offender who shows up on a cold day without warm clothes may get boots and a coat. Homeless offenders get money for flophouse rooms; some also get help with food, child care, and referrals for medical care or substance abuse treatment.

Despite the occasional hassles offenders are unanimous in saying they'd much rather be working for the program than doing time in a city jail. Some say the community service sentence, modest an interruption as it might be in the context of their whole lives, has some rehabilitative effect. CSSP is "showing me how to be a more responsible person, as far as getting up on time for work and what have you," says Jerry. "I know that there's an eight month sentence hanging over my head [should he fail to complete the 70 hours], so I get up."

The only substantive complaint offenders voice arises from their disappointment at the loss of help with food, clothes, and housing expenses after they complete their community service obligation. They also lament that after the program gives them a healthy taste of honest work, they have to give it up.

"When it's over with, you're on your own again, Martin says. "You're back to day one again. You leave. Where do you go?" He believes the program ought to offer services "that can gear you to staying out here, so you don't have to do those things you do" to survive on the streets.

Richard, serving his third community service sentence, concurs. "I think this would be a better program if it was geared more towards setting people up with actual jobs ... you leave here and what are you going to do? You go back and do the same things you did before to get money."

CSSP managers express some skepticism that the motivation to work would continue for many of the offenders if a work-placement component were added. For now, in any case, says Copperman, "It's not what we do. We're not an employment program. We're punishment."

In the beginning, New York City officials and Vera's planners saw the Community Service Sentencing Project as a way both to ease pressure on crowded jails and to establish a tougher sanction for low-level offenders who got off with light probation supervision or had charges dismissed. Funders and corrections policy experts objected that community service sentences for the second group would "widen the net" of social control. But in a memo on the subject a Vera executive held out for their inclusion, arguing that "the net of social control is presently inadequate." In the end they agreed to divide the caseload half and half between those bound for jail and those likely to receive fines or simple probation. A second decision concerned sentence length. All offenders sentenced to community service, the Vera planners decided, would do the same seventy hours of work. This denied judges the chance to fine-tune sentences to fit crimes, one of the basic theoretical selling points of community service. But Vera officials were determined that sentences would be completed, and they worried that they might not be able to coax or compel people to work for more than two weeks.

Similar pragmatism guided a third decision: to offer community service only as punishment, with no broader claims of rehabilitation. If they bought that idea, courts and the public would more easily accept the sanction as a substitute for jail. Besides, it seemed disingenuous to describe forced, menial, unpaid labor any other way.

In another choice with long-term implications, the Vera managers also decided to administer community service from a freestanding agency rather than turning it over to the probation department, as was widely done elsewhere. The separate agency, they hoped, would preserve the identity of community service as a punishment in its own right and as a real substitute for jail.

The program's managers still like to tell the story of its first client, a young man named Willie, who provided an immediate test of the planner's assumptions. Convicted of stealing a $20 pair of trousers from a department store, Willie had seemed like a sound candidate. But he failed to show up for his first day of work. The staff panicked: After all the careful preparation, would the project fail with its first case?

Willie had given a number of addresses and could not be found at any of them. But his screening papers also noted that he was enrolled in a methadone maintenance program. Clayton Williams, then a work supervisor, looked it up and went over the next morning. "They may not go to school, they may not go to work, they may not even go home," he remembers thinking, "but they're going to this methadone program" because the alternative was the illness of withdrawal. Williams explained who he was, and the benefits of the new program, to all who would listen at the clinic. When Willie finally walked in at the end of the day, Williams recalls, "Everybody jumped on him, the director, ... the case managers, his friends"--all berating him for not taking advantage of the community service sentence.

Willie reported faithfully to work for the next two weeks, and community service sentencing was finally up and running.

That year Bronx judges sent 5 to 7 offenders per month to the project. Most completed the sentence without problems. The following year the numbers increased. By the end of 1980 more than 300 offenders had participated, and Vera moved to expand the program with offices in other boroughs of the city.

Though the level of acceptance continued to increase, program administrators found themselves fighting hard at a couple of points during the 1980s to sustain its credibility. The first challenge concerned the number of jail-bound cases. An analysis of cases between October 1, 1981, and September 30, 1982, showed that citywide about 45 percent of convicts doing community service would otherwise have gone to jail-close to the fifty-fifty split planners had set as a goal. But there were big differences among the boroughs. The figure for Manhattan was more than 60 percent, while the figure for Brooklyn was an unacceptable 28 percent and the figure for the Bronx was an even lower 20 percent.

In 1983 a new director, Judy Greene, took over the program determined to increase the Brooklyn and Bronx figures for jailbound offenders. Percentages were low in those boroughs, she found, because prosecutors had gained too much influence over selection of cases for the project. She required that cases be taken from court dockets rather than prosecutors' files, and she denied prosecutors the chance to veto selected candidates. These changes quickly increased the percentages of jail diversions to 52 percent in the Bronx and 57 percent in Brooklyn.

Problems with enforcement caused another crisis a few years later. From Clayton Williams's first-day pursuit of Willie, Vera had been determined to make the offenders do the work; especially given the relatively short seventy-hour sentence, the program's managers believed a high rate of completion was essential to preserving the court's belief in community service as a viable substitute for jail.

If supervisors weren't able to locate absent offenders and persuade them to return to work, they sent warning letters, then notified either the prosecutor or the judge of the default. The court would issue summonses, followed by arrest warrants for those who failed to appear. Judges were stern with absconders, giving jail terms of six months or more to replace the two weeks of community service.

This process produced impressive success rates in the early years; Douglas McDonald, who examined the program in Punishment Without Walls (1986), reports that through June 1983, 86 percent of the Bronx offenders had completed their sentences. For Brooklyn and Manhattan, the figures were 85 percent and 89 percent.

By 1986, however, the spread of crack and other intensifying social problems stressed the community service program along with the rest of criminal justice. The completion rate plummeted. The project's managers tried to respond by sending out new "compliance agents" to find and confront the no-shows and by hiring "participant monitors" to help individual offenders with the problems that were preventing them from getting to work. But the social work approach wasn't enough to stem the absenteeism. Returning cases to the courts, meanwhile, had little immediate effect, since the city police units responsible for enforcing arrest warrants had become overwhelmed. An offender would face consequences for failure to complete community service only if the fact came to light after an arrest for a new offense.

By 1987 the completion rate had slumped to 50 percent, and the program faced a potentially disastrous erosion of credibility. Another new director, Susan Powers, decided on a drastic response: She set up her own armed enforcement unit to go after truants so that she would not have to rely on city police. This was possible under a law authorizing the designation of "special patrolmen" for such a purpose but required several months of negotiation with the police department. In the end the department gave its blessing, and Powers fielded a team recruited from the ranks of retired police officers. The plan worked. The new unit halted the slide in completions; within a few years the rate had climbed back to a healthier 70 percent.

If strong management has kept the program on track, however, it cannot provide answers to more fundamental questions. One concerns public safety. Offenders sentenced to CSSP are under supervision of the program for only ten days when they might have served jail sentences of one or two months. Because many are chronic recidivists who would have been incapacitated longer in jail, additional crime may well be another cost of community service. In his study of the Vera project, McDonald calculated the rate of additional offenses at fifteen arrests per 100 people sentenced to the program.

Copperman responds that the point is now "all so speculative," since it is based on ten-year-old research that has not been updated. CSSP graduates have yet to generate scandalous headlines with horrible crimes that might have been prevented had they gone to jail. And Justice Solomon considers it an issue of slight concern. He emphasizes that offenders sentenced to community service are screened to eliminate any with histories of violence. There might be a small risk of more nonviolent crimes, but to the extent community service manages to keep people out of jail, it makes possible the incarceration of more dangerous criminals. "That's the philosophy," he asserts. CSSP "is really designed to free up jail space for more violent offenders."

The problem might be remedied, of course, by abandoning the uniform seventy-hour sentence and requiring community service for periods that approximate possible jail terms. But Copperman hesitates to embrace the idea. Longer sentences would require more staff the program can't afford. And there is no certainty the success rate could be sustained even with more staff. "If you're going to create a program with enormous failure rates, then you're never going to get anywhere," Copperman argues.

Another difficult question concerns costs. What is the dollar value of cells the program saves or frees for use by more violent offenders? CSSP operates on an annual budget of $2.9 million in funding from New York City and New York State. By the most optimistic estimates, the 1800 clients sentenced to the program for two-week terms would otherwise occupy the equivalent of 250 jail beds per year. Since the annual cost of one bed is $58,400, it's tempting to claim a saving in jail costs of $14.6 million per year, for a net saving to taxpayers of $11.7 million.

Yet it's misleading to calculate the total saving that way, since those 250 beds remain so tiny a fraction of the city jail system's 20,000 bed capacity. As McDonald points out, no cellblocks are closed down, no guards are laid off for the sake of so small a reduction in bed use. The real saving amounts only to the marginal cost of a prisoner's daily care--food, toiletries and the like--certainly no more than, by generous estimate, $20 per bed per day, or $7,300 per year. On that basis the saving totals only $1.8 million for the 250 beds, and community service sentencing, with a total operating expense of $2.9 million, actually costs the taxpayers $1.1 million per year. The program also generates the value of the work done for the nonprofit groups--about $450,000 a year if one values the 90,000 hours at $5 per hour. But none of that affects the city budget.

Copperman doesn't contest the point. "We recognize," he says, "that if we can't save 750 bed years [enough to begin making some jail staff and plant reductions possible] then we're probably not saving anything, because the fixed costs are enormous."

Even so, the fact that the city has not chosen to take full advantage of it hardly negates the program's potential. New York's experience still demonstrates that given tough, thoughtful management, community service can ease pressure on jails while making offenders accountable for crimes in a way the public will support.

What People are Saying About This

Franklin E. Zimring

Sensible Justice is a well-written and sophisticated tour of the major punishment alternatives to imprisonment in America. David Anderson has thoroughly studied the potential and limits of drug treatment, intensive supervision, shock incarceration and the other branches of the new penology. The account he provides is balanced and uncontaminated by rhetorical excess. This is a careful and accessible guide to the alphabet soup of American community corrections.

Alfred Blumstein

David Anderson, with a reporter's critical eye, provides some clear and concise guidance on a variety of community-based programs for dealing with individuals convicted of violence in the community. His descriptions range from community service through residential treatment programs and boot camps. He shows how we can do a better job of controlling crime with greater effectiveness and much lower costs.

Mark H. Moore

In meeting society's demands for punishing criminal offenders, one struggles to find the path of justice and prudence. David Anderson points the way toward a "ladder of sanctions" that delivers cost-effective punishment, and also realizes the intermittent potential for redemption that ought, also, to be a goal of justice.

Michael Tonry

Compared with those of other Western countries, America's punishment policies are cruel, wasteful, and ineffective. Anderson's stories about real programs and real people show that there are better ways. If only policymakers will listen!


On Thursday, January 29th, welcomed David C. Anderson, author of SENSIBLE JUSTICE.

Moderator: Welcome, David Anderson! Thanks for joining us online tonight. Any opening comments?

David C Anderson: Good evening! Thanks for giving me this chance to talk online.

Todd from Newport Beach, CA: What type of research did you do for this book?

David C Anderson: Hi Todd. For this book, I read a large number of scholarly research reports prepared by people at universities or at research organizations funded by the government, and then I traveled to a number of cities and did old-fashioned journalistic reporting, interviewing people who ran the programs, the criminals involved, and anyone else who seemed to have something relevant to say.

Amelia from Charlotte, NC: Do you believe in the death penalty? If so, do you think the Texas governor should grant Carla Faye Tucker a stay of execution?

David C Anderson: Hi Amelia. Thanks for your question. I don't believe in the death penalty myself (I'll be glad to explain why if anyone wants to get into that), so the Carla Faye Tucker question is an easy one for me. But it's an important case because it raises what, to me, is the fundamental issue: Should a person always have to pay with his or her life for a horrible crime? Or should a humane society grant some credit for a person's willingness to acknowledge their wrongful behavior and change into a better person? How we answer that question says a lot about who we think we are as a society.

Kevin Z. from NYC: What kind of reaction have you received from law enforcement officials and police officers?

David C Anderson: Hi Kevin. I haven't received a lot of direct response from police officers. A lot of law enforcement officials -- probation and parole officers, judges, prosecutors -- like the idea that if a person is in trouble with the law because of, for example, a drug problem, he or she should get some help with that problem rather than go to jail or prison.

Albert Brady from Ok. City: Do you really think something like house arrest would deter a criminal from committing a crime again? It seems extremely lenient...I mean...all the comforts of home as a punishment? Give me a break.

David C Anderson: Hi Albert. The question is whether the state or county should spend $20,000 per year keeping a person locked up or a lot less than that allowing them to go home but making sure that they stay out of trouble. Nobody wants to send the Unabomber home for house arrest; we're talking about people who have committed low-level crimes, like shoplifting to support a drug habit. The hope is that you can get them to stay home except when they are going to work or to drug treatment, and that they might begin to turn their lives around....

KC from Jersey City: What kind of research did you do to come to the conclusion that incarceration is unsuccessful in terms of rehabilitating criminals?

David C Anderson: Hello KC. Studies show that people released from prison recidivate at high rates. It's not a controversial statement.

Carson Hamilton from Do you really believe murderers can be rehabilitated? Shouldn't they be punished instead?

David C Anderson: Hi Carson. Murderers should be punished. Murderers can also be rehabilitated. A lot of people who commit murder once aren't likely to do it again (the case of the man who murderd his wife and has no plans to remarry). A lot of murders are committed by young people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sexual jealousy, the sting of insults or other strong -- and decidedly youthful -- feelings. When they get older they change and are not likely to commit murder again. I don't know if there is any specific thing you or I, or any drug counselor, priest, or psychiatrist can do to rehabilitate a murderer. But I do know that a lot of murderers rehabilitate themselves one way or another.... It's a fact that has to be considered.

Gunnar from Akron, Ohio: I like the idea of military-style boot camps. But what kind of criminals do you have in mind to attend these? And why are they necessarily less expensive than the prisons we currently pay for?

David C Anderson: Hello Gunnar. The best candidates for boot camps are young offenders in trouble with the law because of substance abuse , lack of any kind of family or other structure during adolescence, or general immaturity. Boot camps give them a heavy dose of structure, discipline, positive engagement with the issues of growing up and dealing with life, and ideally, positive role models. Several months of separation from alcohol and drugs, physical conditioning, and good nutrition also help. Boot camps are less expensive than prison because criminals go for a shorter time. A convict with a two-year sentence is given the chance to go to the boot camp for six months, on pain of having to go back to prison to serve out the full two years of the prison sentence (no credit for the time in boot camp) if they fail to follow the rigorous boot camp routine. That saves money because it costs so much less to keep a person in boot camp for six months than to keep him or her in prison for two years. The question, of course, is whether six months of boot camp, however successful, can ultimately counteract 18 or 20 years of chaotic upbringing....

Kielty from What spurred your interest in prisons in the first place?

David C Anderson: I was working as a general interest magazine editor in the 1970s when a foundation that funded non-profit magazines about police and prisons hired me to run them. I became totally fascinated with the world of criminal justice and have not looked back....

Terry from New Orleans, LA: What do you think about chain gangs? I know that I do a lot of driving through the South and have seen many chain gangs on the side of highways, and I think they are doing good, cleaning up the streets.

David C Anderson: Hi Terry. In the course of doing research for my book, I spoke with a prison official in Florida who had been told to research chain gangs because the state legislature had just decided to authorize them for Florida. He went somewhere -- I think one of the Carolinas -- where they had had chain gangs in the old days and found the chains prisoners had to wear. They were huge, made of iron; he could hardly lift them. And if you were sentenced to that chain gang, they would put the chains on you the first day, and they would not remove them until the day you had finished your sentence. You slept with them; you went to the bathroom with them...whatever. It was a form of torture. The chains people wear today are like the ones that they use to hang up a toddler's swing. They're made of light steel and they weigh a couple of pounds. The guards put them on you for the time you work; take them off when you go in for the night. So what's the point? To me it is just political posturing. In some states, inmates work in these light chains along the roads cutting weeds and picking up trash, they call it a chain gang, and people cheer. In other states, convicts work along the roads cutting weeds and picking up trash without chains, they call it community service and people attack it as coddling criminals....

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Do you agree with the common belief that the problems with our prisons stem from the current drug laws?

David C Anderson: Hi Paul. There's no question that mandatory sentences enacted during the panic over crack in the 1980s have filled the prisons with a lot of people who aren't that dangerous to society and who would benefit a lot more from court-ordered residential drug treatment, which costs less than prison...

Crit from South Hill, VA: What is the likelihood that your suggestions will come to pass? What states do you think are the most likely to try these alternatives out?

David C Anderson: Hello Crit. What I found during my reporting for the book was that a lot of states are interested in alternatives to prison because they simply can't afford to keep building prisons. In some places, the legislators and law enforcement people try to get the alternatives passed and funded without much public notice. What may happen then is that everyone involved begins to recognize their value. I visited a restitution program in South Carolina, for example, where people convicted of property crimes are sentenced to repay their victims a certain amount of money instead of having to serve a period of time in prison. They are sent to a secure place (it's on the grounds of a state prison) and they are bused out to work every day in private-sector jobs. They get to leave when they have paid off their restitution amount. Local employers, conservative business people, have come to rely on them as a resource and recognize the program as better than prison.

Jack Shifrel from Florida: I share your opposition to the death penalty and of course recognize we are in the minority. How do you defend your position to those who feel that the death penalty is a deterrent, or the more dificult proponents who just view it as punishment? By the way, my own response, especially to those who profess to believe in God, is that a higher power will be answered to in time.

David C Anderson: Thanks for your question, Jack. There is no persuasive research to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. Think about a person about to commit murder. The question is whether he or she will be caught; not the possibility of execution, rather than a long prison term if convicted. And for a lot of them, there isn't time for that kind of rational thought in any case. As for punishment, the question isn't whether a person is subjected to death or nothing; it's whether they are subjected to death or life in prison. To me, life in prison is a serious punishment.

Tobbie from Syracuse, NY: What type of future do you realistically see for prisons as we appraoch the millennium?

David C Anderson: Hello Tobbie. It's hard to tell. Mandatory sentencing laws now in place imply a continued increase in prison populations even as crime declines. Some predict a new surge of crime in a few years because the proportion of young people in the population is going to increase. Meanwhile, states find it harder and harder to afford the costs of prison expansion. My hope is that during the current lull in crime, with less political pressure to get tough, legislators will expand alternatives to incarceration so that the whole process will be more rational if and when crime increases again.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us online tonight. Any closing comments?

David C Anderson: Thanks so much for giving me the chance to chat with people. As always when I do these things, I am impressed with the high quality of the questions people ask....


For the second part of's discussion on crime and punishment, we are proud to welcome David C. Anderson, author of the book Sensible Justice. The former Wall Street Journal and New York Times editor tackles the question: How do people who do wrong turn into people who do right, and who can help them make the change?

Today, there are more than 1.5 million people who are locked up in state prisons and local jails. That costs taxpayers up to $20,000 per inmate per year, which leads to a heated but often contradictory political debate. Voters consider prisons the only real sanction for crime, but adamantly resist new taxes to pay for them.

Sensible Justice explores creative solutions that some states and cities have devised to face this prison problem. David Anderson spent an entire year touring the world of "alternative sanctions" that could substitute for prison, including electronic surveillance and house arrest, military-style boot camps, treatment of drug or sex offenders, restitution programs that repay crime victims, and community service. Each chapter concentrates on a different sanction, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each.

How do we balance the need to punish with the desire to rehabilitate? What are the actual costs -- financial and psychological -- of various forms of sanctions? These questions and any others you may have will be addressed when David Anderson joins the author auditorium.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews