In the past three years, about two-thirds of the states have lowered prison sentences or begun steering convicts into drug treatment or community corrections programs, reports Governing magazine. In many cases, Republican governors or legislators have led the way. There’s a new shorthand phrase lawmakers of all stripes use to sell these policies to their constituents. Now they’re getting “smart on crime.” Why the new attitude? The short answer is the states’ budget crises. After a decade of ratcheting up corrections budgets–states now spend nearly $40 billion on prisons–legislators suddenly found they had to prioritize whom they want locked up. Money is not the only thing. The plunging crime rate since the early 1990s–due in part to tougher sentencing, many argue–means that crime isn’t the volatile issue with the public that it was in 1994. Debate in statehouses today isn’t so emotional and headline-driven as it used to be. Legislators are still toughening sentences for certain crimes–in particular, sexual offenses. But when it comes to low-level drug addicts and petty thieves, they’re having second thoughts about the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of prison as a correctional tool.
Republicans are best positioned politically to make that point. They’ve done such an effective job of branding Democrats as “soft on crime” that sentencing reform in many states had to come from the right, not the left. That’s what happened in Texas, where Ray Allen, the Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee, persuaded tough-talking conservatives to divert thousands of drug abusers out of prison and into treatment. “It opened up a real un-Republican can of worms for me,” Allen says. “It was like Nixon going to China. Some of my colleagues said, ‘Ray, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘The only thing we can do.’ We don’t have the money to lock everybody up.” Some critics argue that Texas and many other states are taking too simplistic an approach–making just as much a mistake by diverting whole classes of criminals from prison that they did by putting them behind bars in the first place. “The pressure is there to free up beds,” says Richard Kern, director of Virginia’s sentencing commission. “But there’s no sound methodology regarding how they’re doing it.”