Will the Real Alternatives Please Stand Up?


A few weeks ago, the Attorney General of the United States remarked that, because traditional responses such as double celling “are frequently no longer available, sometimes because of over-reaching decisions by the Federal courts … [w]e simply cannot afford to ignore alternative forms of punishment.” The Attorney General is hardly the first law enforcement official to hope for relief from jail and prison overcrowding through the expanded use of alternative sentencing. But if he is serious about this, he will have to dig through a lot of useless rhetoric and a lot of wishful thinking by probation officials and private-sector program entrepreneurs before coming to the smattering of useful experiences upon which sound practice in this field must be built.

There is no denying that, in response to overcrowding and to the more enduring commitments to justice and humane social policy, heartening and occasionally illuminating examples of creative alternative sentencing occur around the country in cases subject to jail and prison sentences. Everywhere there are skilled program operators, judges, probation officers, prosecutors and defense counsel making inspired, albeit numerically insignificant, contributions toward the systematic introduction of alternative sentencing. Some of the most promising current work is being done by colleagues who are present at this colloquium. I salute them, for I know something about the difficulties-political as well as practical-that they face day to day. However, my task here is to strike a cautionary note.

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