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Book Review: Sensible Justice: Alternatives to Prison

David C. Anderson The New Press, 182 pgs., $25.00

The programs David C. Anderson lauds in Sensible Justice are everything that alternatives to prison should not be. They stress the punitive over what could reintegrate an offender into society; the individual's culpability over any consideration of the lives the offenders lead; and money saved instead of lives changed for the better.

In each chapter Anderson draws a one-dimensional sketch of a prisoner who is always at least grudgingly in favor of the "alternative" program to illustrate his point about the program. He then gives a quick, shallow and very selective history of such programs, and tromps out statistics from a couple decades of studies debating the standard pro and con arguments about said program.

Deep questioning of these "alternatives" and the state's power to warp and crush people are totally absent. Military boot camps for young offenders where buzz-cut drill instructors beat "discipline" into inner-city kids by forcing them to jog chanting "I used to carry a .38/ But now I'm owned by New York State" provides "dividends (that) are real and substantial" in Anderson's estimation. However, numerous follow-up studies reveal that boot camps do nothing to lower recidivism. Anderson is also impressed by drug treatment programs that include forced abstinence and kick moms out for going to see their kids without the state's permission. Anderson's propolicing bias is revealed not only by his obviously minimal contact with the subjects of the programs in question, but through his use of the criminal justice system's own euphemisms, such as referring to prisoners as "clients."

The prison developed in this country along with the factory as a way to impose industrial work discipline upon those who didn't see the glory of working 14-16 hours a day for someone else's benefit. These so-called alternative programs are a necessary post-industrial, service-sector tweaking of the prison system. Instead of having those who have been sucked into the criminal justice system loiter in overcrowded prisons as they (so offensively to the class of those who benefit from their labor) loiter on street corners, goes the new logic, beat discipline into them by highly structured work release, intensive probation, and home imprisonment (such as ankle bracelets) "alternatives" where their whole life is forcibly structured around their minimum wage jobs. The state makes them better workers by enforcing totalitarian drug and alcohol prohibition, and will send them to prison if they fail to show up at work.

Needless to say, critic's contentions that these "alternative" programs, instead of diverting anyone from incarceration are nothing more than a means of expanding the state's web of control is not seriously addressed. Everything in Sensible Justice proves the critics' grim thesis.

The reviews from employers are rave. Says Ron Robinson, of North American Film Company [the book doesn't say what state it's in], an employer of people forced to work 50 hours a week while they live on a prison complex until they pay a restitution for their property crime: "They have reason to work... We know they're going to be here, and the ones I've seen have been hard workers... They have restitution to pay." Anderson, for his part, agrees that "the forced labor teaches work skills."

The danger of this book is many well-intentioned people may believe the programs it describes to actually be a change from business as usual. It is a particularly disappointing offering from the Edna McConnel Clark Foundation, which provided the grant money to finance Anderson, and The New Press, a non-profit that aims to be progressive.

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