Restitution centers have merit

By TIM KALICH GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH,

Mississippi Today recently published an in-depth look at the state’s restitution centers, or at least as in-depth as reporters can get without being let inside the four facilities, including one in Greenwood.

The implication of the coverage is that restitution centers — in which nonviolent, low-risk offenders are held while they work at low-wage jobs in the private sector to pay off their court fines and compensation to their victims — are a modern-day form of indentured servitude.

There are probably abuses within the system, and the rate of pay — usually minimum wage — prolongs their stay in custody.

But is it really all that scandalous?

According to the statistical analysis, the majority of offenders who wind up in a restitution center do so for violating their probation, and the average length of stay is four months. They get out in the free world during the day to work, and the tabs kept on them are not all that close, as evidenced by the periodic reports of restitution center inmates going AWOL.

One of the critiques of the prison system in Mississippi — and in a lot of other states, too — is that very little is done to rehabilitate inmates. Odds are good that when they come out — and most eventually do come out — they will have no more education or desirable job skills than when they went in, increasing the chance that they will be back behind bars in the not-too-distant future. If they learn anything in some of the worst prisons, they learn how to be better criminals.

The restitution centers, by contrast, try to develop personal discipline and decent work habits among those they hold. Employers may get cheap labor out of the deal, but they are also providing job experience that some of these inmates might not get otherwise.

And not every restitution center inmate is a model citizen. Some are more trouble than they are worth to have as employees, misusing their partial freedom to obtain drugs or other contraband while on the job site.

There’s indeed a lot wrong with Mississippi’s corrections system. It locks up too many people for too long in places that you might not want to put your dog in. It underpays prison guards so badly that few people will take the job, and some that do are about as crooked as the criminals on the other side of the bars.

Maybe the restitution centers have flaws, but their basic idea of requiring low-risk felons to make amends in a safe but controlled environment doesn’t sound that bad. And they’re certainly low on the priority list as to what needs correcting in corrections.

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