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Old 03-24-2006, 01:53 PM
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Default Creative Alternatives to Prisons

Creative Alternatives to Prisons

by Ruth Morris of Rittenhouse

A television show some years ago portrayed a community which had a lottery every year. In the lottery, one of its finest youth was chosen for death. A stranger who entered the community and questioned the necessity for the lottery was condemned and driven out.

Our lotteries are not quite so random, but they do select from our youth those to be isolated and further destroyed. Have we the vision and daring to try more creative alternatives?


Alternatives to prison are not a visionary future ideal, being talked about by a few creative reformers. There are 25 different alternatives, described in this pamphlet, all in practice. Most of them are working effectively in Canada. In general, their use only needs to be sharpened and expanded. Some, like probation and parole, date back to the 19th century, but most are relatively recent, and represent a growing recognition by the community that we deserve something better than prisons.
One of the biggest reasons alternatives are not used as effectively as they could be is that courts often use alternatives as "community punishment" or extra control for people who would never have been sent to prison without the "alternative." This is called "widening the net" of social control, and has made many concerned people disillusioned with alternatives. Net widening is a natural response by courts, fearful of public reaction to being "soft on criminals", and seeing only returning criminals, day after day; No success stories return to courts to give them another side of the picture, nor do they have much direct knowledge of the futile destructiveness of prisons, although the return rate of the people they send there ought to tell them something.
Besides Net Widening, another major problem alternatives face is our mixed motives: we want to punish offenders, rehabilitate them, control them, encourage them to take more responsibility, reintegrate them, and stamp them as Guilty all their lives, all at once. Naturally; these purposes are incompatible. Some alternatives focus on one more than on others.
In the explanation that follows, we have grouped alternatives by how much and how they intervene in offenders' lives. Alternatives also vary in others ways:
  • Whether punishment or rehabilitation is their main purpose
  • Whether the community at large or an individual is seen as the main victim of the crime
  • Whether the offender participates in seeking solutions
Prisons achieve only punishment, ignore individual victims, and give offenders no responsible role in taking responsibility. Their primary functions are to institutionalize, and to punish. By disempowering people and stigmatizing them, they drastically lower their self-image, and create a very violent atmosphere.
Not all alternatives avoid these qualities of prisons. It is important to evaluate alternatives on how far they empower offenders to take responsibility for the problems in their lives, and the problems they have caused others. True alternatives do more than save money: they build a more caring, inclusive community, from which all of us benefit. They look at all sides of a criminal act and its causes, and they include all affected parties in finding the best resolution for it.

Alternatives now being used include:
  1. Housing Alternatives:
    1. Community Resource Centres
    2. Halfway Homes
    3. Bail Residences
    4. Therapeutic residences
  2. Community Supervision:
    1. Bail Supervision
    2. Probation
    3. Parole
  3. Restoration Models:
    1. Financial Restoration: Civil Court, Fines, Restitution
    2. Service Restoration: Fine Options, Community Service Work Orders
  4. Treatment: Rehabilitation Programs.
  5. Legal Remedies:
    1. Legislation: Decriminalization, Capping
    2. Police Discretion
    3. Court: Discharge, Alternative Sentence Planning
    4. Prison: Immediate Temporary Absence Pass, Early Parole
  6. Cooperative Solutions:
    1. Conflict Resolution
    2. Victim Offender Reconciliation
    3. Diversion
    4. Community Group Conferences
    5. Native Sentencing Circles
1. Housing Alternatives (Maximum Intervention)

Community Resource Centres, or CRCs, are used in Ontario for persons serving the last part of their sentences, and who can get jobs in the community. Though still serving their sentence, and subject to control in every way; they go out into the community to work, and are allowed some freedom on weekends and evenings, once they show reliability. Run by social agencies on behalf of federal or provincial corrections, and funded entirely by corrections, CRCs help de-institutionalize people gradually.
A Bail Residence is like a CRC; it is also run by a voluntary board, and funded by the Ministry of Corrections, but it exists for people who are waiting for trial on a charge. Its purpose is to provide a suitable, supportive community residence for those who have none during their pre-trial period.
Without pretrial alternatives, as Alice in Wonderland expressed it, "First we punish them, then we try them".
Halfway Homes also offer 24-hour support, but the big difference is that staying in a halfway home is voluntary: In the true halfway home, rules are set by residents and staff to meet the residents' and the home's needs, not in response to correctional regulations. Halfway homes can be a turning point for people who have never known a caring home before.
Therapeutic Residences are residential drug or alcohol or psychiatric treatment programs. An offender can go to one to receive treatment for the real problem which caused the offence. Obviously; it makes a lot more sense to cure an addict than to punish him/her for the addiction, and further lower their self-image through prison.

2. Community Supervision

Probation goes back to the remarkable efforts of a Boston cobbler, John Augustus, who spent much time in the courts. He became so involved in the plight of drunks and poor that he paid many fines. By 1858, he had bailed out 1152 men and 794 women and girls! He had also befriended over 3000 other friendless women; for all of this service, he was subjected to a great deal of caustic criticism.
The greatest difference among probation, parole, and bail supervision is in when they occur in the legal process. Bail Supervision keeps people out of jail with responsible supervision while they are awaiting trial, before guilt or innocence has been decided. It is astonishing that more people spend more time in prison before trial than after conviction!
Without bail supervision, the poor go to jail, while those with resources get out on monetary bails. Without it, months of punishment occur before trial. Studies have shown a further injustice: staying in jail while you wait for trial increases your chance of being convicted, and of serving time after conviction. Bail supervision reduces all these gross inequalities.
Probation is an order of the judge after conviction. It is a decision that this person, now found guilty, should be placed in the community with supervision and guidance to avoid future trouble.
Parole, last in order, comes when someone has served part of a prison sentence. It is a way of releasing him/ her gradually toward independence into the community. At its best, it provides the community some protection, and the Parolee a helping hand in making a difficult transition.
Community supervision programs have their weaknesses: powers of supervision can be abused; or with large caseloads, they can be neglected. But over the decades, community supervision programs have been the longest established alternative to prisons, and have proved themselves in thousands of lives. Many have been helped by them toward a better future, instead of being pushed down the destructive slide of prison.
Supervision programs relate people to other community services, including drug and alcohol counselling, housing assistance, monetary assistance, personal counselling, and educational and job upgrading.

3. Restoration Models

All restoration alternatives focus on what the offender can give back to the community, or to the victim, in compensation for the crime.

A. Financial Restoration

Three alternatives use financial restoration: Civil Court Remedies, Fines, and Restitution.

Civil Court Remedies: An alternative which may be a lot more helpful to many victims is to pursue the problem through the civil courts, asking for financial damages. Since most court cases relate to property and money; financial remedies make a great deal of sense, especially since criminal courts often forget about compensating victims in any way:
In civil courts, victims can play a more central role. Offenders too may have somewhat more voice. The end result of a civil court procedure will either be dismissal of the case (which can also happen in criminal courts) or a financial settlement giving monetary compensation to the victim.

Fines: Fines are a court ordered punishment, which require that money be restored to the community (via the court) in order to right the balance of justice. Although flat fines are very discriminatory against the poor, income-related fines (fines of a day's pay for that person, for example) adjust the fine to the person's ability to pay:

Restitution: Restitution is a court order to repay the victim money; for money or property taken or damaged. Unlike fines, they restore the money directly to the victim. It is astonishing how recent the idea of restoring lost money to victims is, considering that they are the ones who have lost it!
One difficulty with restitution, however, is that it is harder to relate it to the means of the offender. It is counter-productive to order an indigent offender to restore a large sum of money; when the offender has no legal means of doing so.
Restitution orders which look at all aspects of the situation can be positive. Restitution "gives the victim back his/ her crime." Many legal processes remove the victim from the action, and leave him/ her entangled in legalities, with no compensation and no support for his/ her feelings.
What follows the original victimization is sometimes worse than the crime itself. Restitution turns attention back to the victim, and restores some compensation, which also acknowledges the victim's feelings of having been wronged.
Restitution also gives offenders a chance to earn and repay honestly what was stolen or destroyed, and a sense of proportion related to the action. The lack of connection between a small theft and months spent in prison deprives most offenders of any sense of justice, leaving them only with a deep sense of having been wronged themselves. Restitution relates what they did to what they must do.

B. Service Restoration

Two alternatives offer community service as restoration: Community Service Work Orders, and Fine Options Programs.
Community Service Work Orders are usually combined with a Probation Order, as part of a Court Order. They require offenders to do a certain number of hours of voluntary community work.
Offenders may shovel snow for seniors, clean parks, paint community centres, or use specific skills.
Community service orders have some serious defects: they have been used widely to "widen the net," adding many hours of required free work to minor offenders. These offenders often come from groups which have had little opportunity at paid jobs. Having low work skills and little employment history; and now being required to work for nothing and to meet unfamiliar standards, they often fail. For not meeting their required "voluntary service," they can be sent to prison, so that the "alternative" actually causes incarceration for people who would never have been sent to prison without it.
But at their best, community service orders instill good work habits, constructive use of leisure time, a sense of responsibility, and may sometimes even lead to a job offer or a career direction. New relationships and a more positive self-image can develop. The cost is about 1/20th that of prisons.

Fine Option Programs were started in Manitoba and Saskatchewan mainly for native people, because for so many of them, "Fifty dollars or five days" is no choice at all, since they don't have the $50. These programs are not limited to native people, however. Fine Option programs offer people ways to earn money to payoff their fine. Without them, we are still really running debtors prisons, reminiscent of Dickens' England.
Through Fine Options, the person can gain work experience and contribute to the community, instead of costing the community $500 while serving a five day jail sentence.

4. Treatment

Treatment programs focus on the offender as an ill or needy person. Sending an alcoholic to Alcoholics Anonymous or to a community alcohol treatment program makes a lot more sense than sending them to prison. It sounds obvious to say that the mentally ill should get treatment, not punishment, but our major jails have whole sections for the obviously mentally ill, with no treatment in them.
Besides treatment for obvious illnesses like addiction and mental illness, therapeutic approaches offer lifeskills training for those who need it, and job readiness training for the long term unemployed. Treatment approaches identify a specific problem in an offender's life, and connect her or him to a potential solution. What happens next depends on the qualities and relevance of the treatment, as well as the readiness of the offender, but at least it is a step far more useful than punishing people for the life problems they have.

5. Legal Restraint Remedies

A wide variety of legal restraint alternatives to prison exist, and are among we most widely used alternatives. Through them, the legal system restrains its own role, and allows the offender and others more responsibility. These steps operate so quietly; automatically; and easy that very often we are unaware of them. In general they use a minimum of intervention, believing that once the problem has been identified, most minor offenders will respond best to a minimum of interference in righting their lives.
Legal restraint can be applied at four points in the legal process:
  1. Legislative Remedies
  2. Police Discretion
  3. Court
  4. Prison
a. Legislative Remedies: Decriminalization, Capping

Decriminalization is an alternative to prisons and courts, which takes some behaviors out of the criminal code. Where there is no actual victim, socially offensive behavior can be dealt with by social values, civil courts, and decriminalization.

Capping is a legislative remedy for the overuse of prisons which has been used successfully in several American states. Since Canada has one of the higher rates of incarceration in the western world, as courts continue to incarcerate minor offenders, we can through legislation set maximum limits on the numbers and proportion of our population we are willing to jail. In the capping scheme, when those limits are surpassed, those closest to their release dates are automatically released. This is done until the prison population is dropped to its declared maximum number.
Legislation can be written to release offenders on the basis of amount of time served, seriousness of offence, security risk, or many other ways. Capping simply requires courts and prisons not to hold more than a certain number of proportion of the population in prison. It is the only alternative guaranteed not to widen the net, and certain to reduce imprisonment rates. It has been effective wherever it has been used.
Two separate studies of large groups of offenders released by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, before their sentences were finished, showed these early released offenders had a lower rate of return than those who served their whole sentences! Thus capping reduces crime by reducing the crime-creating effects of prisons on people.

b. Police Discretion

Large numbers of offenders are simply not charged by police. The police have the discretion not to charge people in many situations. What is "disorderly conduct", for example, is obviously partly a matter of perception, and police can let minor offenders go with a warning, as most of us know from traffic encounters.
If it weren't for police discretion, the proportion of our population who have records would be much higher than it is. The difficulty is that police discretion, like court choices, is greatly influenced by an offender's manners and social background.
A well-mannered, white anglo-saxon middle class alcoholic is much more likely not to be charged than a lippy; native street alcoholic.
Social class bias operates in the choice of who gets alternatives throughout the justice system, as it does in most areas of life. Nonetheless, police discretion does save a lot of unnecessary stigmatization for minor offenders who require nothing more than a few words to avoid a particular behavior in the future.

c. Court Remedies: Discharge, Alternative Sentence Planning

Courts have a number of ways of restraining their right to give maximum imprisonment. Two court alternatives are Discharge and Alternative Sentence Planning.

Discharge is a court alternative similar to police discretion. It occurs after a person comes to court and acknowledges responsibility for the charge. A discharge erases the criminal record as long as the act is not repeated. Discharges minimize stigma, which can start people on the downward slide into the vicious prison-court cycle.

Alternative Sentence Planning is a community service offered by a private agency through the court. An individual plan is developed which combines any of the alternatives mentioned here. It recommends whatever combination of treatment, supervision, housing, restoration, and participant planning seems best. The court can then give an order incorporating these recommendations.

d. Prison Remedies: Immediate TAP, Early Parole.

Immediate Temporary Absence Passes, or TAPs, can be recommended by courts and implemented by prisons, for persons with sentences who have jobs, in an effort to allow them to keep their jobs. The sentence can then be served on weekends, and possibly evenings, while the offender goes out to the job weekdays. Keeping a job is a vital part of keeping offenders constructively involved in the community; and reducing repeat offences.

Early Parole: Prison systems can release minor offenders more quickly with early parole, by planning for parole as soon as the person enters the institution. Without such planning, parole cannot be implemented before their sentences is served, and minor offenders benefit least from the parole option.

6. Cooperative Solutions

Cooperative solutions involve offenders in planning resolutions. As obviously useful as this sounds, it is only significantly present in five existing alternatives.
  1. Community Conflict Resolution
  2. Victim Offender Reconciliation
  3. Diversion
  4. Community Group Conferencing
  5. Sentencing Circles
A. Community Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution programs allow problems to be dealt with in the community where they came from. They provide an alternative for conflicts before they even get to the stage where crime occurs. Thus they don't need "victim" and "offender" labels, but recognize the universality of conflicts which can benefit from outside trained mediators.
Many matters that end up in Court with one person charging another are really issues of mutual dispute, which mediation can help far better than courts. By creating an atmosphere where both parties feel heard by the mediators, disputants are more able to listen to each other. In this safer atmosphere, communication occurs that usually enables them to find mutually helpful solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts.

B. Victim Offender Reconciliation

Victim Offender Reconciliation brings victims and offenders together in order to understand facts, heal feelings, and find mutual resolution. Victim fears and anger are dealt with far more constructively than court processes allow, and the offender is given a better understanding of the human costs of his/ her behavior than the legal system can accomplish.
The victim must, of course, agree to participate voluntarily; but their sufferings are dealt with far more helpfully than by the usual legal process. Meeting with offenders relieves fears and anxieties, and allow victims to express anger and hurt safely to the party directly responsible. At the same time, their compassion is usually aroused by the reality of the offender's life problems. Such meetings cut away the impersonality of modern urban life, and bring offenders face to face with the real people hurt by their behavior. Both parties are challenged to take responsibility for the situation, and find mutual resolutions.

C. Diversion

Diversion diverts the whole problem before it reaches the courts. Most diversion programs deal with first offenders. Diversion seeks to spare the person the whole criminal process -which is in many cases, the process of making a person feel and become a criminal. Instead, he/ she is told about diversion and given the choice of working with a diversion centre or choosing the court route.
In diversion the accused person accepts responsibility for the offence, and meets with a diversion worker to plan an appropriate response. Options such as relevant education, work, treatment, compensation are discussed, and the client explores these options, returning with a plan for discussion. Court processes stigmatize, inspire guilt, and deprive the accused of creative initiative. Diversion encourages initiative, and helps accused persons work through guilt feelings constructively and responsibly.

D. Community Group Conferencing

Begun in 1989 in New Zealand as the way to deal with all young offenders, Community Group Conferences are rooted in indigenous justice practices. Judge Mick Brown had been practicing them for over 10 years when New Zealand legislated them and put him in charge of the whole system.
Community Group Conferences are a Transformative justice option, because they use crime as an opportunity to empower all affected to bring healing to victims, offenders, and community: All those concerned by the crime, not just victim and offender, are included in a sharing which brings accountability to offenders, recognizes the wrong of the victim, and examines the social roots of the situation.
Many victims find them so healing that their grief process is accelerated, and they are able to offer the whole community the healing of freely offered forgiveness. Paced with the pain of their own family and community as well as that of victims, offenders are similarly accelerated in a new path of responsibility and healing. Community group conferences are spreading rapidly around the world.

E. Sentencing Circles

Native sentencing circles are a blend of western justice with their own more powerful native healing circles. Native healing circles were the original way that most indigenous communities gathered elders and community together to respond to crime, including all those affected, and respecting the input of all. Sentencing circles incorporate much of this wisdom, but are bound by the limits of courts, and subject to overruling by judges and by appeal courts. Our western revenge system's shadow still hangs over them, but much of the original healing circle wisdom shines through.
The strongest healing circles pass a sacred object around the circle, and each one speaks four times: first introducing themselves and why they are here; second, speaking to the victim, and recognizing their wrong fully; third, speaking to the offender, to recognize their part in the community but also how this act damages the community; and finally recommending their solutions. Elders pull together a community consensus from all this wisdom.

What About the Dangerous Ones?

If all these good things exist now, what are we worried about? And anyhow, are any of them relevant for the really serious offender? Although all exist, none are used as extensively as they might be. One reason is that courts respond to the wishes, fears and desires for vengeance that they hear coming from you and me.
Opinions on who is a serious offender, and what proportion of the prison population are dangerous will vary, of course. But very few people who have met prisoners believe that the majority are violent. Most volunteers, after their first visit inside, come away asking, "But where are the real criminals?" So little do the longhaired, loudmouthed, irritating but innocuous and appealing youth they have met fit the public stereotype of a dangerous criminal.
Nonetheless, there are a few who are truly dangerous. Call it two to five percent as most social agencies do, or ten percent, as more conservative sources do - don't we need prisons for them?
Opinions vary on what to do with the dangerous few, but no-one believes that mixing them with the young inexperienced offender does anyone any good. It is this mixing in the prison setting that makes many of the 5% hardcore. Even without prisons to do it, however, a few people become so damaged by life that they are dangerous. Public protection is certainly needed, but is public revenge? Surely a very different type of restraining, personalized treatment facility could meet our needs for these few.

Future of Alternatives

If these alternatives are so good, why do we still have prisons and crime? What other alternatives do we need that aren't here yet? Many of these alternatives are not used as widely or as well as they could be. Fines need to be income related. Sentencing needs to respect the simation of both offender and victim. Better civil settlements for financial disputes would meet everyone's needs better. Some newer and more progressive alternatives need a wider chance: victim offender reconciliation, community group conferencing, sentencing circles, and diversion.
These approaches help offenders take responsibility, and respect the deeper needs of all parties. The consistently high correlation between incarceration and unemployment points out the value of alternatives which improve job skills.
Above all, every alternative needs to be applied in a way which fosters respect and responsibility. Community alternatives which categorize people rigidly; which stigmatize, and which deny the social wrongs affecting their client group, are little better than prisons. They cannot break down the barriers between people, which are a major cause of crime. With dedication, we can build community alternatives that bridge gaps, that help offenders, victims, and the wider community to assume responsibility together - alternatives that heal and reconcile, creating mutual growth out of the pain of crime.

copied with very kind permission of Ruth Morris of Rittenhouse
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