I vote a definite "thumbs up" for Mr. Jan M. Biggs, Fresno lawyer and former trustee of the Clovis Unified School District. As reported in these pages (May 25), an audit uncovered that he had apparently embezzled partnership and client funds from a local law firm. However, Mr. Biggs acknowledged his wrongdoing. Furthermore, he was quoted as saying: "I am working to pay back what I took."

I am overjoyed that the principle of restitution is clearly being applied in this case. In fact, the article's final quotation actually utilizes this word: "'...and he's paying for it by making restitution,' (Ralph Lockwood) said." Restitution means that the offender agrees to repay the victim the amount that was stolen or otherwise embezzled.

Restitution provides both an equitable punishment, as well as a deterrent to crime -- factors that the prison system does not deliver. Restitution could be termed "just recompense," and it is founded upon the "principle of similar measure." In other words, "thieves are required to pay back something to the owner from whom they have stolen," according to forensic author Dr. Vern Poythress. In the voice of the Old Testament prophet, "As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head" (Obadiah 15).

In societies where restitution has been implemented successfully, "The amount paid varies with the situation: sometimes double, sometimes four times, sometimes five times," Dr. Poythress states. "The (first) repayment...is simple restoration, while the (second) repayment...is punishment for the criminal intent. ...The penalty must involve two parts, restoration of the original and punishment for evil intent." Imagine the outcome if every thief faced the prospect of repaying at least double what he'd stolen.

Restitution also delivers practical, social benefits. The chief advantage, among many, is that a criminal, rather than going to prison where he'd likely become worse, is required to do something constructive by paying someone else. And instead of creating additional cost for the taxpayer, he himself pays off his "debt to society." "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands," is the counsel of the New Testament.

Indeed, prisons and jails have lost their purpose of being a place where a convict expresses "penitence." Our word, penitentiary, is derived from this purpose. Instead, modern prisons foster a sense of impunity. Statistically, convicts serve only a fraction of their sentences. According to James Wootton of the Safe Streets Alliance, "Judges pretend that defendants will get long sentences, and they get out the back door." Thus, "(young offenders) learn early on that crime pays," writes renowned editor Mortimer B. Zuckerman. In fact, Zuckerman later states: "They are not deterred by the pangs of conscience or the prospect of prison, which is for them a peer group rite of passage."

So I ask myself why Fresno mayor Jim Patterson advocates more jail space for juveniles. He made this statement in his State of the City address, and it was lauded in a May 26 editorial. But I strongly disagree. Fully recognizing the severe problem of juvenile crime locally, as well as the unusually high level of automobile theft, I believe the solution is not more jail space -- "which is for them a peer group rite of passage." Likewise, neither adding more police, in itself, nor the "three strikes and you're out" laws can solve the inherent problem. In fact, they make the problem worse by over- burdening the prison system.

Rather, we should be focusing on a socially constructive alternative, one whereby not only the guilty parties receive authentic punishment, but also the victims are repaid for their losses. Restitution provides the feasible alternative. Yet I wonder why this important item is absent from our local, state and national agendas when we talk about reducing crime rates.

Unlike Mr. Patterson, however, Mr. Biggs is on the right track. Mr. Biggs deserves our accolade for his courage to admit his misconduct, for his honest repentance, and for his strength of character to accept and to apply the correct legal consequence. I, for one, salute Jan M. Biggs. His example of upholding an age-old principle that is so sadly lacking in our modern society, should be emulated more widely.

My opinion piece was published on the op-ed page of The Fresno Bee, in the section called “Valley Voices,” on June 22, 1996, with the title, “Restitution delivers practical social benefits.”