As states grapple with record budget deficits, more politicians are looking toward criminal justice reform to cut costs.
If you're seeking a silver lining to the current economic crisis, this may well be it: As states across the country confront historic budget shortfalls, more and more politicians are looking toward long-overdue criminal justice reform as a way to cut spending. Suddenly, the money local governments stand to save by slowing down incarceration rates is trumping the political costs traditionally associated with it.
Good news, perhaps, this evolution in thinking, but it's hardly a burst of innovation (let alone political courage). The nation's prisons have been dysfunctional and overcrowded for ages, reaching emergency levels in recent years. Around this time last year, a study released by the Pew Center found that 1 in 100 Americans was behind bars, a sobering statistic that spurred calls for reform, from news articles to op-eds, to (briefly) Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary campaign. One year later, the economic crisis has given reluctant governors and state reps the political cover to initiate reforms that they previously would have considered too risky. Virginia and Kentucky are pondering early release for thousands of low-level prisoners and Michigan, one of four states that spends more on incarceration than education, is considering deep reforms as well.