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Watching the correctional pendulum swing.

When I began my career as a caseworker at the Indiana Reformatory in the early 1950's, the correctional "pendulum" had just begun to make its dramatic shift from the punitive right to the permissive left. While the causes behind this dramatic shift can be infinitely debated, the effects quickly became apparent. Even today, after a significant "correction" to the pendulum during the 1980's, the legacy of the move toward permissiveness is clear: A general lack of respect for authority, a criminal element with little fear of swift or equitable retribution, and a citizenry that questions the capability of the criminal justice system to provide effective protection against crime.

Although the 1980's movement to the right balanced some of the previous excesses, it also created new problems. Factors such as increased drug enforcement efforts and mandatory sentencing guidelines led to intense prison overcrowding problems. Still, crime rates--those of violent crimes, in particular--did not fall.

The 1990's, then, must address the excesses of the past. An important element of success is to find a proper balance for the correctional pendulum.


Where, when, and why did the shift toward permissiveness begin? Educators point to the educational system during World War II, when a large proportion of the male population served in the armed services. While mothers worked long hours to fill vacated jobs, school administrators suggested overlooking "little Johnny's" shortcomings in school because few authority figures at home could assist in the child's discipline. The word was "don't blame Johnny" for his shortcomings, but try to sympathize with him. In time, this well-intentioned sympathy was carried too far to the point that Johnny, as a young adult, was relieved of any accountability for his conduct.

Then came public assistance handouts and other government programs ready to excuse Johnny and his parents from their responsibilities. Eventually, this philosophy permeated further into family structures, as well as into the criminal justice system. If individuals could not be held accountable for their actions, then law enforcement agencies and the judicial system should, likewise, be lenient toward their behavior.

Beginning in the late 1950's and proceeding through the next two decades, the judicial system--often led by the Supreme Court--began to champion this cause. Alleged criminals demanded, and were often granted, "their rights," far beyond what they may have deserved. A series of landmark cases, including Gideon v. Wainwright, Escobedo v. Illinois, and Miranda v. Arizona,(1) awarded what I believe to be undue liberties to criminals, and in the process, restrained law enforcement and the courts.

The practical effects on the correctional system and society in general soon became devastating. As criminals and their interest groups demanded ever-increasing levels of due process, they literally began to bankrupt several States' correctional systems. The resulting budget strains effectively stifled any programs that could genuinely assist in offender rehabilitation and resocialization.

Meanwhile, circumstances within prisons often bordered on the absurd. In the late 1960's, courts began to accept the jurisdiction of inmate complaints and moved to restrict the authority of prison administrators. While many of these prison reforms addressed legitimate community and inmate concerns, other changes simply undermined the fundamental structure of the prison system. By the late 1970's, many observers found it difficult to determine who ran the prisons--the administrators or the inmates.


Then, suddenly, in the mid-1980's, public sentiment shifted again and began to dictate a "get tough" attitude toward criminals. This swung the pendulum dramatically back to the punitive right.

However, society may soon find that an exaggerated move to the right also produces disturbing results. In 1992, Federal and State prisons housed an estimated 900,000 inmates.(2) And, if current sentencing patterns continue, this number will increase at a rate of 7 to 8 percent annually. This could mean 1.5 million inmates in Federal and State prisons by the year 2001.(3)

Perhaps most disturbing, increased incarceration rates seem to have little effect on the situation on the streets. While the rates for some crimes leveled off, violent crime rates increased steadily during the 1980's. Not surprisingly, fear of crime also rose sharply. Although more offenders sit behind bars, citizens feel no more safe today than they did 10 years ago.

Is this really what society wants or needs? Will such numbers in our prisons really make us feel safe in our persons and property? Is this what our criminal justice system is all about--or is there another solution?


If increased incarceration rates do not necessarily translate into safer communities, do alternatives exists? In his many speeches advocating decriminalization of certain victimless crimes, Professor Norval Morris, former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, asserts that the criminal justice system should concentrate more specifically on those offenders whose behavior prevents citizens from feeling safe. As Professor Morris states, "We cannot legislate morality."(4) An attempt to do so with prohibition during the 1920's proved not only futile but also self-destructive to society. When discussing the current status of society and the criminal justice system, Professor Morris and other proponents of decriminalization often speak about the "overreach of the criminal law."(5)

While sharp disagreement exists concerning the specific activities that law enforcement should or should not target, the concept of decriminalization may represent a viable option to building more prisons to incarcerate ever-increasing numbers of prisoners. Still, such approaches do not address the causes that lead youths to become criminals and cause citizens to feel fearful in their own cars, homes, and communities.

Defining the Problem

We may find some of the solutions by answering a basic question. How can we balance the correctional pendulum so that it veers neither too far to the left nor to the right?

To find the solutions, we have to recall how we came to be where we are now. Disintegration of societal values begins with a lost sense of personal responsibility. Society must correct the mistakes of the past and return to a stronger family values system--beginning with an emphasis on parental accountability. This sense of responsibility must then be instilled into each child.

In addition to a renewed sense of responsibility, we must also examine our attitude toward materialism. Our mistaken concept of greed destroys families from within. Should material accumulation really be that significant to us, or are there higher values to which we as a society should aspire?

Working Toward a Solution

Because members of the criminal justice community have a vested interest in the results, they should take a leadership role in formulating approaches to enhance a sense of social responsibility, especially among the Nation's youth. Police administrators may consider dispatching officers to local schools to deliver special civics lessons--a long-abandoned area of instruction in most school systems. These classes should be updated to reflect the interests and concerns of today's students and society in general, but the presentations should stress the importance of community responsibility. Criminal justice agencies should also consider developing other community-oriented initiatives that foster strong family and community bonds. In the long term, by addressing the root causes that lead to crime, these efforts--if applied in a fair, aggressive, and consistent manner--may represent the most effective way to begin to reverse what appears, at times, to be an ever-rising tide of criminality.


Many factors, including the philosophical aspirations of the Nation's leaders, determine the direction the correctional pendulum takes. However, the criminal justice community exerts considerable influence in shaping public sentiment in this area. Accordingly, criminal justice professionals should take this responsibility seriously and work to correct the pendulum by balancing the rights of the accused with the needs of the community. In so doing, we should remember the Latin adage--in medio stat virtus--"virtue stands in the middle."


1 Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964); Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

2 Harry E. Allen and Clifford Simonsen, Corrections in America, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1989).

3 Ibid.

4 Norval Morris, "Politics and Pragmatism in Crime Control," Federal Probation, September 1971.

5 Ibid.
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Title Annotation:Focus on Corrections
Author:Miller, George J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Narcotics Investigative Techniques.
Next Article:Supreme Court cases: 1992-1993 term.

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