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Moralistic Corrections

Have a ticket for drinking underage or having a party? A course from Western Corrections can keep the fines down and a person's record clean. But does the program deter people from becoming repeat offenders?

BY BEN NAHORNEY

We're all familiar with the drill. A party gets busted, and the cops issue tickets to the tenants and underage partygoers consuming alcohol. The ticket is a notification to appear in court and face the charges leveled by the authorities. Most people assume that when you receive such a ticket, you go to court, plead your case, and are then subject to the judge's decision.

Often this is not the case. In fact, the defendant may never see the inside of a courtroom.

Ask a minor who has been ticketed for an alcohol-related crime and there is a good chance the name Western Corrections will come up. A publicly traded company based in Sandy, Utah, Western Corrections runs a diversion program for minor, non-jail time misdemeanors, including many offenses involving alcohol. If an offense qualifies for the program, the accused has the opportunity to go through the course rather than appear in court. If accepted, the accused pays the cost of a video, a series of booklets, and a packet to complete as an alternative to going through the judicial system. Once these are complete, he or she is given the opportunity to have the offense stricken from their criminal record. Normally, if a person is found guilty of the charges, they would be given a fine and put on court probation. At a cost of $125 or $250 (depending on the crime) the program is a much cheaper alternative for a defendant than having to face a judge.

Jeff Scott, founder and current president, began Western Corrections in 1980. The company now deals with over 200 different offenses, offered through various District Attorneys' offices throughout seven western states. From court to court, administration of the program varies, but possible charges include anything from misrepresentation of age to the unlawful cutting of trees, though the majority of cases focus around petty theft and vandalism.

According to Steve Skelton, Chief Deputy of the District Attorney for Lane County, the majority of cases in the University area involve alcohol. Some of the more common offenses that are sent through the program include minor in possession, misrepresentation of age, false identification, open container, and disorderly conduct. The program is a very attractive offer to many students who either do not have large budgets or would rather that their parents not find out about their offense.

But does the program work when it comes to deterring students from drinking and/or throwing parties? Chris Gillis, a senior with a double major in Biology and Spanish, threw a party at his house last spring, at which 200-250 people showed up. When the cops arrived, the party was broken up and Gillis received a ticket for Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors. On the day of his court appearance he was given the option of having his case put through Western Corrections. Gillis accepted.

"It's a really good thing to get," according to Gillis. "Since this was my first offense, [the charges] have been totally expunged from my record as if it never happened. It saved my ass."

The experience of going through Western Corrections' program kept him and his housemates from throwing any more parties, but not because he felt that his actions were wrong. "It definitely makes you sit down and realize what a pain in the ass this really is and how much this costs you."

When asked what he thought of the material he received from Western Corrections, Gilles called it "some of the cheesiest things I've ever read. The booklets seem like something you get in freshman year [in high school] health."

The cover of one of the booklets, titled A Summary of Facts on Alcohol, shows a mobster-type cartoon character, with blood-shot eyes, a cigar clenched in his teeth, and a 'Tommy gun' crafted in the shape of a bottle of alcohol. The character is placed in the middle of a circle with a line through the middle and is dubiously named "Al Cohol." While the information in the packet about the effects of alcohol may be physiologically correct, it is interlaced with more cartoon characters similar in context to "Al Cohol" and synonymous with the stated information.

Aside from the booklets, the packet that must be filled out contains a number of 'facts' at the beginning that are expected to be taken into context as a person completes the packet. For example under the page entitled 'Purpose of the Course,' it is stated that the packet is meant for a person:

"To understand that freedom is dependent on responsibility and compliance with laws. Without laws and people that obey them, there would be no freedom. Total and absolute freedom really brings chaos and confusion and ultimately you will lose all your freedom."

This, and similar discussions about freedom, lay out a set pattern of ideals, without any discussion of the basics of Democracy, the principles and/or problems of Anarchy, the fundamentals of a Republic, or any political theory whatsoever to back up the stated ideals.

The packet goes on to discuss how society sets certain standards of behavior and if a person does not conform then "society says that your standards are not high enough, and as a result neither is your behavior." This argument assumes that the standards of society are a cohesive block and are set in only one direction. If this were the case there wouldn't be such a thing as controversy over social issues, being that everyone is beholden to the same values.

However, there are places where the packet takes a 180-degree turn and claims that society is bad and should not be followed. For example, in the section entitled "Getting Wants and Needs Mixed Up," the person completing the packet is asked to "name some of the things in our society today that make us want things we don't really need." In another section (called "A Typical Beer Ad") a political cartoon lampooning the Beer Industry is used as an example of an ad. The cartoon shows scantily clad women and men having a great time, surrounded by beer. A Beer Company Executive is telling a small kid, "We're not trying to say drinking will make you popular and exciting, but if you want to be a dweeb for the rest of your life" The person filling out the packet is asked, "What does this tell you about those ads and other social pressures like them?"

While such ads are obviously manipulative, such techniques are used to sell anything from chewing gum to deodorant. Following the packet's logic, these things are also bad and one should refrain from their use. This contradicts the idea presented in the booklet that one should comply with the standards of society.

As a person continues to answer the questions in the booklet, he or she finds that a great number of assumptions about their everyday behavior and thought processes are made. Questions such as "Will you earnestly try to become honorable in all your dealings with your fellow man? [Circle one: YES NO]" and "Offering non-alcoholic beverages is a poor way of helping others to keep from drunk driving because they might take offense and drink more to spite you. [Mark TRUE or FALSE]" The answer to the later example is obvious to the point of wondering why it is asked in the first place.

Ultimately, Western Corrections decides if a person has answered the questions sufficiently. "We will then check all of the answers for completeness and an effort on your part to do it all properly." If the answers (whether answered sincerely or flippantly) are not completed in a manner that fits Western Corrections idea of correct thinking, then the packet is sent back to be redone. If that does not work, then "we will advise the court of your violation." Such ultimatums could lead a person to answering the questions, not in a truthful manner, but in a way that they think Western Corrections expects them to be answered. (Note: quotes from the section of the booklet entitled 'Basic Requirements of the Course.")

The case of Ritchie Metzler is one such instance. (For more information, see "Eugene's Paid Demons." Commentator Vol. XVI, Issue XI/XII.) "I didn't fill out what I thought, I filled out the answers in a way I thought they expected," Metzler said. "All [the program] wanted was you to act like society acts. It compares everything to society, following societal norms, and trying to tell you what those norms are. It really didn't have much to do with our violation."

Scott, hearing that not all people who go through his program change their behavior feels that is the responsibility of the individual. "What this is, is an individual approach to try to put people in a position to where they have to think about their responsibility to society, to themselves, their behavior, who controls it, and issues of wants vs. needs. I'm not sure there is any cure-all type of program anywhere that is going to solve all the problems for everybody."

To Scott's credit, there is an excellent piece by motivational writer Earl Nightingale discussing how people "become what we think about." This section, however, is the second to last section in the packet and the reader is not presented with it until he or she has worked their way through 36 pages of questions.

Overall the work of Western Corrections is a mixed bag. On one had, it clears the court systems of a percentage of minor crimes, leaving less of a strain on our judicial system. The program also allows an individual to keep their criminal record clean and it is a sincere attempt to get people to stop illegal behavior. On the other hand, it forces an individual to follow a train of logic that may or may not work in getting the person revise their habits.

Scott points to a number of in-house studies done over a variety of geographic locations and time frames. He claims that almost all DA offices that have done these surveys have shown a significant drop in repeat offenses. Yet the type of crime could very well make a difference in the success rate. While the questions in the program might apply to a person who has committed petty theft, it may not be appropriate for someone who is stopped walking down the street with an open beer.

Asked what he thinks of the program, Gillis said it is a sincere attempt to help improve people's lives but that it didn't apply to the problems most students have. "In reality, most students don't need their lives saved, they just need a stress breaker."

Metzler seems to agree regarding the program's usefulness. When asked if the program made him change his drinking habits or stop throwing parties, he simply stated, "Hell no, it didn't!"

Ben Nahorney, a senior majoring in Journalism, is a staff writer for the Oregon Commentator