Nowhere is this social experiment playing out with more intensity than in California, the nation's largest jailer. It is looking to move as many as 33,000 prisoners out of state penitentiaries over the next year alone, many of whom could end up on the streets. It will provide the country's clearest look at how ready many criminals are to be on the outside – and society's readiness to have them there.
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America's arc in getting to this point involved a lot of clanking cell doors. From 1973 to 2009, the US prison population grew by more than 700 percent – the result of an uptick in crime, huge numbers of drug arrests, and tough sentencing laws. At the end of that time more than 1.6 million people sat behind bars in federal and state penitentiaries, the largest inmate population in the world.
Yet in 2010, for the first time in 38 years, the US prison population declined. Experts cite myriad reasons for the modest (0.3 percent) drop: a decrease in crime in many cities, more use of alternative sentencing, and fewer people put back in prison for parole violations. Early release of inmates for good behavior was also a factor.
Half the states in the country reported a decrease in their prison populations last year. The number of inmates in Michigan, which hit a peak of 51,500 in 2006, now sits around 43,500. The state has closed down 17 penitentiaries and prison camps as a result.
Similarly, New York State has emptied more than 15,000 prison beds over the past decade, mostly through sentencing reform. New Jersey's prison population has dipped, too, in part because of early parole grants. Even rawhide-tough Texas gave up plans five years ago to build eight new prisons, channeling the money instead into probation programs, outpatient treatment, and drug courts.
"We're starting to see a triumph of sound science over sound bites," says Adam Gelb, who studies criminal justice issues at the Pew Center on the States, a Washington research group. "State leaders from both parties are adopting research-based strategies that are more effective and less expensive than putting more low-risk of-fenders into $30,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cells."