Civil Liberties

Solving the Prisoners Dilemma

States use house arrest to open up prison beds.


In a growing number of states, if you're caught breaking and entering or possessing illegal drugs, you may not be sent to prison. You might just be told to go to your room.

Faced with a rapidly growing prison population and budget shortfalls, several states are expanding community control programs for nonviolent offenders, hoping to lower costs, reduce recidivism, and free up prison beds for violent criminals. These programs vary widely in size and structure. But in general, community control programs divert some nonviolent offenders from prison and place them under house arrest and strict supervision for short sentences (18-30 months). Offenders may leave only for approved activities such as going to work, and they are subject to frequent visits from caseworkers, random drug and alcohol tests, and sometimes even electronic monitoring. They are often required to do community service, make restitution to victims, and pay part of the supervision fees.

Minnesota and Oregon both have extensive community control programs, but Florida has the largest such program of any state, with over 14,000 inmates currently in the Florida Community Control Program. In a 1991 study of the FCCP, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency determined that it cost the state $6.49 per day for FCCP offenders as opposed to $39.05 per day for comparable prison inmates.

In addition, the study found that offenders placed in the community control program had a lower new-conviction rate than similar offenders sentenced to prison. S. Christopher Baird, co-author of the study, says drug offenders placed in community control programs in Florida and other states do especially well. Unfortunately, he says, "Many states exclude drug offenders from their programs because of public intolerance of illegal drugs."

Ironically, the public's increasing intolerance toward crime may prod politicians to take advantage of community control programs. New York Gov. George Pataki recently announced a plan to repeal mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders so that judges would have more discretion to sentence these convicts to treatment, community service, or house arrest—in effect, community control. But this would be a means to an end: Pataki said his proposal would open up 3,000-4,000 prison beds for violent offenders.