While states are emptying cell beds for different reasons, the one common motive is the high cost of keeping so many people behind bars. States now spend more than $51 billion a year on prisons – the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Syria. Prisons represent one of the fastest-growing items in state budgets at a time of pressing fiscal penury. Many states face fraught decisions over whether to spend money on classrooms or concertina wire.
Reducing prison budgets, in part by sentencing nonviolent offenders to programs outside prison walls, is one of the few issues many groups on the left and right now agree on. "There's more cooperation on this topic than on any other that I can think of right now," says Marc Levin of Right on Crime, a conservative group whose supporters include former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, antitax crusader Grover Norquist, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
California faces the same pressures as other states and some unique to itself. It has long taken a tough stance on sentencing, which has contributed to a ballooning prison budget. It doubled during the eight-year tenure of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) alone, reaching $9.5 billion.
Yet the immediate impetus for the state's sudden push to reduce its prison population comes from the courts. Overcrowding in the state's 33 prisons had reached more than 200 percent of designed capacity. In some cases, prisons were housing inmates in gymnasiums on bunk beds stacked three high.