By Paul Beck
Is jail the right place for all offenders? Are there other punishments for criminal behavior that suit the interests of society? Judges in many countries seem to think so and are bringing into existence new and better ways of punishing some kinds of crime.
Throwing criminals in jail is an ancient and widespread method of punishment, but is it a wise one? It does seem reasonable to keep wrongdoers in a placeswheresthey find fewer opportunities to hurt innocent people, andswheresthey might discover that crime doesn't pay.<注1> The system has long been considered fair and sound by those who want to see the guilty punished and society protected. Yet the value of this form of justice is now being questioned by the very men who have to apply it: the judges. The reason, they say, is that prison doesn't do anyone any good.
Does it really help society, or the victim, or the victim's family, to put in jail a man who, while drunk at the wheel of his car,<注2> has injured or killed another person? It would be more helpful to make the man pay for his victim's medical bills and compensate him for the bad experience, the loss of working time,<注3> and any other problems arising from the accident. If the victim is dead, in most cases his family could use some financial assistance.
The idea of compensation is far from new: some ancient nations had laws defining very precisely what should be paid for every offence and injury. In Babylon,<注4> around 2700 B.C. , a thief had to give back five times the value of the goods he had stolen; in Rome, centuries later, thieves only paid double.<注5> "Good system!" say modern judges, who know what bad effects a prison term can have on a nonviolent first offender.<注6> A young thief who spends time in jail receives a thorough education in crime<注7> from his fellow prisoners. Willingly or not, he has to associate with tough criminals who will drag him into more serious offences, more prison terms—a life of repeated wrongdoing that will leave a trail of victims<注8> and cost the community a great deal of money; for it is very expensive to put a man on trial and keep him in jail.
Such considerations have caused a number of English and American judges to try other kinds of punishment for "light"<注9> criminals, all unpleasant enough to discourage the offenders from repeating their offences, but safe for them because they are not exposed to dangerous company.<注10> They pay for their crime by helping their victims, financially or otherwise,<注11> or by doing unpaid labor for their community; they may have to work for the poor and the mentally ill, to clean the streets of their town, collect litter or plant trees, or to do some work for which they are qualified. Or perhaps they take a job and repay their victims out of their salary. This sort of punishment, called an alternative sentence,<注12> is applied only to nonviolent criminals who are not likely to be dangerous to the public, such as forgers, shoplifters, and drivers who have caused traffic accidents. Alternative sentences are considered particularly good for young offenders. The sentenced criminal has the right to refuse the new type of punishment if he prefers a prison term.
Since alternative sentences are not defined by law, it is up to the judges to find the punishment that fits the crime. They have shown remarkable imagination in applying what they call "creative justice."
A dentist convicted of killing a motorcyclist while driving drunk has been condemned to fix the teeth of the poor and the elderly at his own expense one day a week for a full year. Another drunk driver (age nineteen) was ordered to work in the emergency room of a hospital once a week for three years, so that he could see for himself the results of careless driving.
A thief who had stolen some equipment from a farmer had to raise a pig and a calf for his victim. A former city treasurer, guilty of dishonest actions, was put to raising money for the Red Cross.<注13>
Asgroupsof teenagers were sentenced to fix ten times the number of windows that they had smashed "just for fun" on wild evening. Graffiti artists<注14> have been made to scrub walls, benches, and other "decorated" places. Other young offenders caught snatching old ladies' purses have been condemned to paint or repair old people's houses or to work in mental hospitals.
A doctor who had attacked his neighbor during a snowball fight had to give a lecture on the relation between smoking and cancer. A college professor arrested in a protest demonstration was ordered to write a long essay on civil disobedience,<注15> and the president of a film company, who had forged ,000 worth of checks, had to make a film about the danger of drugs, to be shown in schools. The project cost him ,000, besides the fine that he had been sentenced to pay.
The judge's creativity is not reserved for individuals only; lawbreaking companies also can receive alternative sentences. They are usually directed to make large contributions to charities or projects that will benefit their community.
Instead of trying new types of sentences, some judges have explored new ways of using the old ones. They have given prison term to be served on weekends only, for instance—a sentence that allows married offenders to retain their jobs and to keep their families together. Although the public tends to find the weekend sentences much too light, the offenders do not always agree. Says one, "it's worse than serving one term full time, because it's like going to jail twenty times." But prison personnel object that it is too easy for weekenders to bring drugs and other forbidden goods to the other inmates; they have to be searched carefully and create extra problems and work for the guards.
Alternative sentencing is now practiced in seventeen states and is spreading fast. Judges meet regularly to compare sentences and share their experiences. The federal government has announced that it would provide guidelines to prevent the courts from giving widely different sentences for similar offences. The judges have not welcomed the idea; they feel that it will narrow their choice of sentences and clip the wings of their imagination.<注16>
The supporters of the new justice point out that it presents many advantages. It reduces prison crowding, which has been responsible for much violence and crime among inmates. It saves a great deal of money, and decreases the chances of bad influence and repeated offences. It also provides some help to the victims, who have always been neglected in the past. Many judges think that alternative sentences may also be beneficial to the offenders themselves, by forcing them to see the effects of their crimes and the people who have suffered from them. The greatest resistance to the new kind of justice comes from the families of victims who have died. Bent on revenge,<注17> many angrily refuse any sort of compensation. They want the criminal locked up in the good old-fashioned way. They believe, reasonably, that the only just punishment is the one that fits the crime. And they fail to understand the purpose of alternative sentencing. What the judges are trying to find is the kind of punishment that will not only be just, but useful to society, by helping the victims and their families, the community, and those offenders who can be reformed. "This," says a "creative" judge, "is true justice."