February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Georgia is known as a law-and-order state, yet most of the people convicted of crimes there never go to prison. The state has no choice; there’s no room for them. The prisons have already been filled to overflowing by decades of get-tough law enforcement. “By 1981 we had 3,000 prisoners backlogged into county jails,” says Wince Fallin of the Georgia Department of Corrections. “Sometimes crisis is the mother of invention.”

These days, Georgia is known less for its two-fisted cops and no-nonsense judges than for its pioneering efforts in finding alternatives to putting people behind bars—a cause once championed chiefly by liberal critics of the prison system. Other states, caught between the public’s eagerness to crack down on crime and its reluctance to pay for more prisons, are following Georgia’s lead. All across the country felony offenders are doing time in new and novel ways. Some sentences, like victim restitution and community-service jobs, are designed to allow the convict to repay society. Others, like court-mandated schooling, job placement or drug treatment, are fashioned to rehabilitate the offenders. Still others are intended to hold criminals up to public ridicule, bringing peer pressure to bear to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Not everyone is thrilled by this trend. Mothers Against Drunk Driving considers many of the alternative sentences handed out to drunk drivers too lenient. Some civil libertarians fear that giving courts too much latitude in monitoring criminals’ behavior outside of prison will “broaden the net of social control”—particularly as entrepreneurs rush to fill a need for new and more sophisticated home-surveillance devices. Only the criminals are unanimous in their opinion. Just about anyone serving an alternative sentence will tell you, “It sure beats prison.”

Charged with theft and failure to appear in court for his arraignment, demolition contractor Roger A. Smith, 30, of Albany, Ore., was looking at serious prison time until Lincoln County District Attorney Ulys Stapleton—taking his own look at the state’s overcrowded jails—decided to make Smith’s sentence “more direct, more public and more embarrassing.” In lieu of prison, he suggested, Smith could repay his victims, serve five years probation and advertise his crime and punishment. Smith bought space in two newspapers to publish his photo and a public apology. Since then, a dozen Oregon offenders have done the same.

For Maria Arnford, 27, life used to be a nonstop round of booze, drugs and parties. Now it’s cooking, sewing and quiet afternoons by the pool of her home in the Houston suburbs. “I’ve turned into the world’s greatest housekeeper,” she says.

But Arnford’s metamorphosis from barfly to homebody was not of her own choosing. Arrested first for drug possession and then for driving while intoxicated, she came before District Court Judge Ted Poe last August. Poe gave her a choice between going to prison or cooperating with a new electronically monitored house-arrest program. So she allowed Program Monitor, Inc., a Dallas-based firm, to install one of their special phones equipped with a video screen, camera and transmitter in her living room. When PMI calls, day or night, Arnford must punch a button that sends her televised image back to the company. For this the state of Texas pays $8 a day, compared with about $45 to maintain an inmate in prison.

A runaway at 12, Maria spent her youth drifting. By the time she married her husband of seven years, who’s work in offshore drilling keeps him overseas half the year, she was a veteran of the party scene. Now Arnford, who’s subject to random drug and alcohol tests, may leave the house only at established times for therapy, community service or church. Her husband is delighted with the change in his wife. For the first time in her life, Maria is developing a sense of discipline. “This program has been like a parent to me,” she says, “the parent I never had.”

Everett Allen looked out at the roomful of men and women and began to tell his story. “Many years ago,” he said, “I was a loner. I traveled the country…and in a small town I met a young lady…. She was my wife for the next 53 years.” Then he spoke of the automobile accident that killed five people and gravely injured his wife, Agnes. He told how she hung on for weeks in intensive care, facing the amputation of both her legs.

“I just can’t put into words,” Allen said, “the suffering that lady went through.” Then Allen, 84, himself badly injured in the crash, began to weep. Some of the 40 people in his audience started weeping too. Many of them had been convicted of driving-while-intoxicated in King County, Wash. Part of their sentence was to hear from Allen and four other panelists whose lives have been blighted by drunken drivers.

The victim-confrontation process is one of many forms of alternative sentencing devised in recent years to deal with a deluge of convictions under beefed-up drunk-driving laws. The prison system simply isn’t equipped to deal with all those convicted of a crime that is so prevalent and so often deadly, yet punishment is necessary for the laws to have weight. Some states have sentenced people convicted of vehicular homicide to work in hospital trauma units or city morgues. A Texas judge sentenced a driver who killed the husband of a pregnant woman to pay 10 years of child support for the baby.

For Sarasota County, Fla., Judge Becky Titus, the drunk-driving scourge has hit close to home. Her own husband, a public defender, appealed against the novel sentence she imposes on first-time drunk-driving offenders. If they must drive their cars to work or to school, Titus requires that they display a red-and-white, glow-in-the-dark bumper sticker that reads: “Convicted DUI Restricted License.” Because of the color, picked at random, the sticker has become known as the Scarlet Letter. Titus thinks her embellishment on the standard Florida penalties (which include fines, license suspensions and alcohol education) is a memorable and effective deterrent.

Husband Elliott Metcalfe, however, considers the stickers cruel and capricious. In the fall of 1985 he asked the state’s appellate court to strike down his wife’s orders requiring the stickers, arguing, among other things, that they were a reverse violation of free speech. The appeal was denied.

When Titus asked defendants what upset them most about their drunk-driving convictions, half of them said it bothered them to see their names in the newspapers. “If reputation is such a big thing,” she says, “then maybe this can be a deterrent. Public humiliation is one of the big things that has been overlooked.”

Three young Georgia men—two black, one white—are getting the welcome Tommy Williamson extends to all new arrivals at the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. “The party’s over!” the wiry corrections supervisor roars. “You’ve chosen 90 days, and you’ll do it my way. You will stand at attention, your heels together and your feet at a 45-degree angle!”

Williamson turns on one inductee. “You got any kids?” he asks. One child, says the man. “Real brilliant,” Williamson sneers. “Out there messing up. You ain’t worth a damn.” Williamson, who is white, routinely refers to inmates of both races as “maggot,” “scumbag” and “boy.” They must address him as sir at both the beginning and the end of each statement—just the way they might in the Marines.

Indeed, life at the Burruss center mimics boot camp right down to the skinhead haircuts, the punishing physical drills and the spit-shine discipline. Since the armed forces no longer regard themselves as finishing schools for wayward youth, Georgia has tried to duplicate the military experience in its own “shock incarceration” program. Selected nonviolent offenders ages 17 to 25 facing time are offered a choice: 90 days in a shock program or a longer stint in jail.

At Burruss, inmates must rise at 5 a.m. for cell inspection and pass the next 13 hours of manual labor, meals and exercise in virtual silence. They are permitted to talk among themselves only between 6 and 7 p.m., when they can also watch television—but only the news or educational programs. All books except the Bible are banned during the week, and no visitors are permitted for the first six weeks.

Yet few inmates regret their choice, and Georgia authorities claim that roughly 80 percent of those who have been through the shock program since it began four years ago have stayed out of further trouble. Critics of the program, like Kim Garrett, a former director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, worry about its impact—”Kids go in feeling like Rambo and come out feeling more like Rambo,” she says—but many offenders and their families marvel at the results. “When I came through the front door, I had to become a man in about 30 seconds,” says Shaun Sorrows, 19, who had violated his DUI probation. “I wish I had come here the first time I got in trouble.”

Judge Robert Downing has always been a quick study. It didn’t take him long after his 1984 election to the district court bench in Baton Rouge, La., to discern a pattern in the cases that came before him. Most criminal defendants were young—”How many 40-year-old 7-Eleven robbers do you read about?” he asks—and most were school dropouts. Convinced that a high school education and a firm moral grounding were a young person’s best protection against falling into the “pipeline to prison,” Downing, 38, began using his sentencing powers to break bad habits and encourage good ones. “If I put [jail] time over his head,” says Downing of the typical first-time young offender, “I can make a productive citizen out of him.”

Downing began by ordering defendants to earn high school equivalency diplomas. One young man running with a bad crowd was required to get a crew cut, after which his flashy friends dropped him. And a 21-year-old unmarried woman with two children was ordered to stop having babies. A higher court reversed Downing on that order, though it upheld his right to require the same woman to spend one hour a week in religious or moral training and to join a Toastmasters club to improve her speech.

But his most noteworthy achievement may be a training program that lets first-time offenders serve out their probation learning a trade at the Baton Rouge Vocational-Technical Institute, then practicing that trade in a court-approved job. A 1986 grant from the federal Job Training Partnership Act pays tuition and basic costs for the young offenders, who must maintain a good attendance record, observe any curfew Downing assigns and stay drug-and alcohol-free. “The nice thing about this system is that if they’re going to mess up, they will mess up in the first few weeks and I can pull their chain and put them back in jail,” says Downing. He admits that his brand of hands-on justice takes up far more time than most judges are willing to spend. At one point last year, discouraged that only about half of the 40 probationers involved were making it, he almost abandoned the program, he says. Instead, he reminded himself that the failure rate among traditional probationers is much higher—about 85 percent. “You can’t stop the program because some people mess up,” he says. Now, however, Downing has moved to a civil court judgeship, and the federal grant for his program runs out this year. Unless some other district court judge is willing to take it over, Downing’s enlightened experiment will come to an end.

But similar programs are taking root elsewhere. Nova Ancora, Inc., sponsored by the New York City Department of Probation, places probationers with local businesses that it then assists in applying for tax credits and low interest loans. It has just received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Albert Abney, owner of an auto parts company in Queens, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Nova Ancora (Latin for “new anchor”) since 1983 and now has 17 probationers on his payroll. “I was never arrested,” says Abney, 47, “but I’ve seen gang wars and I’ve seen killings. I’ve seen what idle hands can do to people. I believe that if I’m gonna make it, I have to give something back. If I straighten out one or two kids, that’s good. If 10, that’s great.” Then too, a young man with a past often turns out to be an excellent worker. “The average college kid has no loyalty,” Abney says. “He doesn’t feel you’re doing him any favors. But the loyalty of these probationers is very strong.”

One of them, Anthony Wimberly, 25, recalls that he had spent several discouraging weeks trying to explain his conviction for possession of a firearm to potential employers. At that point Abney’s offer of a job “came like a sun in the night,” he says. “I felt so proud. I went and told my mother, and she felt better, like, you know, maybe now I can get a new start.” Wimberly has been promoted four times in his three years at Abney and now runs the shipping department. “It’s amazing how one program can change so much,” he says. “I wish everyone could be as fortunate as me.”

Ishmael Bass, 24, who pulled a light, two-month sentence for attempted robbery before being enrolled in Nova Ancora thanks to a concerned judge who knew his family, says that Abney is “not really a boss, he’s more of a buddy.” Bass says a taste of jail, followed by the chance to hold down a decent job, “has really helped open my eyes.”

“A judge has to see people as people, not as entrants into court logs,” says Louisiana’s Judge Downing, who, like many people, had his own youthful scrapes with the law. “Somebody gave me a chance.” So now he is doing the same. “You’re not going to cure crime doing these alternative sentences,” Downing adds. “But you will turn a few lives around. It’s cheaper than jail, and it makes sense.”

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