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An opportunity in prison budget cuts

States can release many nonviolent inmates safely and find other ways to reduce costs.

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Across America, states are taking a hacksaw to prison budgets – causing an uproar amid concerns about public safety and job losses.

It's the recession that's forcing their hand. Done right, though, the cuts can lead to needed prison reform, without endangering the public.

The US ranks as the prison capital of the world. In 2008, more than 2.3 million men and women (or 1 in 100 adults) sat in prisons or jails. This dubious distinction comes from a near tripling of the inmate population over the past two decades – and a similar rise in state spending on corrections.

California, which has the nation's largest prison system, is housing inmates at nearly twice its capacity – and spending more on them than on its public university system.

In August, a panel of federal judges ordered California to significantly reduce its prison population. Also last month, rioting inmates virtually destroyed a prison in Chino. The fight pitted Latinos against African-Americans. But the prison was also notoriously overcrowded.

There's only one way to achieve significant savings: Reduce the number of inmates. That's not as scary as it sounds. The Pew Center on the States finds that many states have reached a "tipping point" where additional jailing will have little if any effect in reducing crime.

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