The Battle Against Crime

by Sanford Bates
Director, Bureau of Prisons

The year just past has been a difficult one in which to maintain the aims, standards, and principles which have characterized the Federal prison policy. Briefly stated these are: faithful execution of the sentences prescribed by the courts, and the protection of society by making reasonable efforts to reform and rehabilitate the prisoner so that upon discharge he will leave the institution with no scars upon his body or mind which will handicap him in a sincere effort to be a self-respecting and law-abiding citizen. To accomplish this the prison must maintain or restore his health and physique, give him where necessary at least the rudiments of an academic education, provide useful and stimulating employment, and discover and remove the causes of anti-social acts or attitudes. It is not enough to pursue, apprehend and punish the malefactor and after a residence in a penal institution of brief or long duration, turn him out more of a danger than he was when received.

The recent bold and ruthless depredations of a small group of desparate criminals have made the public impatient with the prisons and with crime prevention programs, but the thinking person can still differentiate between the type of desparado for whom the Alcatraz Penitentiary is provided and the man who is a criminal by force of circumstances, the accidental offender, the feeble-minded, the under-privileged and the sorely tempted. The Government campaign against crime is a battle of many fronts. Part of it is spectacular, but behind the front line activities much patient and painstaking work must be done. The work of our penal institutions, probation and parole systems are of equal importance with the activities of our police and law enforcement agencies.

The accidental offender who can be made over into a constructive and self-supporting member of society by the application of probation methods may be ruined by a long term in prison. A prisoner kept too long in a penal institution and turned out with [25] no control or supervision is infinitely more dangerous than a man who makes the natural and gradual transition from institutional control to the limited restriction of a good parole system. The mistakes of parole boards and the misplaced leniency of courts are greatly publicized, but our communities today are being as much protected through the reformation of a large percentage of the men handled by the probation and parole methods as they are by the incarceration of the desparate criminal.

Figures of our Federal Parole Board that less than 7 per cent of the total number of men released on parole supervision failed to complete their parole terms.

What would it have cost if the nearly 40,000 trivial offenders who were carried on probation during the last year had been placed in jail or prison, and what would have been the gain for society? Incidentally, the statistics gathered by the Department of Justice from certain of the larger cities of the country show during the first quarter of 1934 a total of 87,917 arrests. These same records show that only 873, or about one per cent, of these persons arrested were found to be on parole at the time of arrest. (Such data scarcely support the thoughtless and superficial statement that parole as a method of penal treatment has failed. For every case of parole violation, a dozen cases can be cited where properly administered parole treatment has been instrumental in adjusting a former prisoner in the struggle he faces from a hostile public.)

Granted that care should be taken in the administration of parole, that this privilege should be extended only after the defendant has served a sufficient time in the institution, that its administration should be absolutely divorced from political and other ulterior influences, that its award should be based on full consideration of the facts, the character of the applicant and the environment to which he must return, and granted, moreover, that parole boards are human and have not the miraculous power of foresight; granted all these things, it can nevertheless be successfully maintained that when the proper time arrives for his release, it is infinitely better and more consistent with the proper protection of our communities to release a prisoner under parole supervision than to turn him loose, as must eventually be done in every case, without help, advice or supervision.

Convinced of the wisdom of this general theory, Congress passed a law requiring that every Federal prisoner shall be released [26] under parole conditions, whether that release was accomplished before the end of his minimum sentence in the belief of his future ability to be a law abiding citizen, or whether his release comes at the end of his minimum term, as set by the court, through statutory allowance for good conduct in the prison.

And, finally, the Bureau of Prisons cannot refrain from expressing the oft repeated assertion that in the last analysis the control and repression of crime is a community responsibility. Our distinguished Attorney General has on many occasions called attention to the fact that the Government can do its part, but the real responsibility lies with the citizens of our communities. An ounce of prevention in the field of crime, as elsewhere, is worth a pound of cure. The Bureau is confident, therefore, that its fundamental aims and objects have the support of the informed public, that there is no inconsistency whatever in the maintenance of institutions for the reformation and rehabilitation of those who can be reformed, that the operation of wisely administered probation and parole systems on the one hand, and a rigorous persistent battle with the law breaker, on the other hand, promote the public interest.

[FEDERAL OFFENDERS 1933-34:pp. 24-26]