America faces an enormous public policy dilemma. On one hand we are expending a greater portion of our public dollars on incarcerating, punishing, treating, and controlling persons who are primarily from the lower economic classes in a futile effort to reduce crime. On the other hand, we have set in motion economic policies that serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor and produce yet another generation of impoverished youths who will likely end up under the control of the correctional system. By escalating the size of the correctional system, we are also increasing the tax burden and diverting billions of dollars from those very public services (education, health, transportation, and economic development) that would reduce poverty, unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and mental illness. Until the long-term consequences of such a controversial and deliberating public policy are recognized and reversed, the hope for a "kinder and gentler" America will be yet another "unmet promise."
During 1987, approximately 340,000 persons were sent to state and federal prisons. The public, influenced by news stories of exceptionally violent crimes and politicians' rhetoric, believe that all of these prisoners are dangerous and should serve lengthy prison terms. However, the facts suggest otherwise. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency's (NCCD) research has shown that the vast majority of inmates are sentenced for petty crimes such as minor property offenses, minor drug violations, and public disorder. Our nation spends an exorbitant amount of money each year (nearly $7 billion in 1986) to warehouse petty criminals. Instead of escalating the use of expensive and largely ineffective prison sanctions, NCCD suggests that alternative options should be launched that will reduce taxpayer costs, increase restitution to victims, and help ensure that these prisoners will not return to a life of petty crime.