The Law: The Shame of the Prisons

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teen-age offenders, two-thirds of them car thieves. After detailed classification (from "inadequate-immature" to "social-ized-subcultural"), the kids are plunged into quasi-capitalism: an incentive system that pays each boy points and pennies for doing his chores and studies well. The pennies are used for room rent and other needs, the points for earning privileges. The idea is intriguing, but the yearly cost per boy is huge ($9,000 v. $6,000 in an average juvenile home), and the results are not yet clear.

25¢ on the Dollar

Criminologist James Robison, who does research for the California legislature, is among those who question the accuracy of many penal statistics. He even disputes the much-vaunted results of the California Youth Authority's Community Treatment Project, a famous experiment in which convicted juvenile delinquents were not confined' but given intensive tutoring and psychotherapy. After five years, only 28% had their paroles revoked, compared with 52% of another group that was locked up after conviction. As a result, the state expanded the project and cut back on new reformatories, saving millions. Robison, though, has proved, at least to his satisfaction, that the experimenters stacked the deck by ignoring many of the kids' parole violations. He argues that most penal-reform funds are wasted on salaries for bureaucrats, who mainly worry about pleasing their bosses. "For every dollar spent on the criminal justice system," he insists, "we get back about a quarter's worth of crime control."

Given the facts of penal bureaucracy and sheer ignorance, critics like Robison sometimes wonder whether the only rational solution is simply to unlock all jails and prisons, which clearly breed crime and hold only 5% of the nation's criminal population while costing far more to run than all the crimes committed by their inmates. Pessimism is well founded, but the encouraging sign is that few if any Americans defend the system as it is. From the President to the lowliest felon, the nation wants a humane system that truly curbs crime. This is the year of the prisons, the year when Congress may double federal spending (to $300 million) to spur local reform, the year when something may finally get clone and Americans may well heed Dostoevsky's goading words.

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