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In October, California launches a plan to reduce its prison population. To comply with a Supreme Court ruling, thousands of lower-level inmates will move from state prisons to county jails. But the state has not allocated sufficient funds for counties to absorb the influx.

Compounding this dilemma is the long-standing controversy over the purpose of criminal punishment. Conservatives believe punishment should be proportional to the crime. For liberals, the goal of punishment is prevention. So while conservatives see high incarceration rates as proper condemnation of criminal conduct, high recidivism rates cause liberals to question the cost-effectiveness of imprisonment.

So the challenge is not just to reduce prison overcrowding affordably, but also to bridge the schism between retributive and preventive sentencing goals. Criminal restitution provides  a way out of this predicament. Restitution is a punishment in which offenders make reasonable repayments to their victims or provide community service to localities.

Existing restitution programs focus mostly on juveniles and adults with minor offenses. But faced with an unfunded influx of state prisoners, counties could expand those programs to include offenders imprisoned, not because they're a threat to public safety, but because of mandatory sentencing policies.

Restitution costs far less than incarceration, and it bridges the ideological divide over the purpose of criminal punishment. It requires offenders to atone for the consequences of their actions. Their punishment is proportional to the harm they've caused. Restitution lowers recidivism and partially reimburses victims and communities.


The history of criminal justice reforms is poor, so I view any innovation cautiously. However, restitution's mix of low costs, just deserts punishment and beneficial social outcomes is promising. Holding low-risk offenders accountable for the damage they've caused leaves everyone -- victims, taxpayers, offenders and the community -- better off than conventional penal practices.

With a Perspective, I'm Steve Woolpert.