Trend to Lighten Harsh Sentences Catches On in Conservative States

Publication: The New York Times

Author: Charlie Savage

08/12/2011 - Fanned by the financial crisis, a wave of sentencing and parole reforms is gaining force as it sweeps across the United States, reversing a trend of “tough on crime” policies that lasted for decades and drove the nation’s incarceration rate to the highest — and most costly — level in the developed world.

While liberals have long complained that harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses like drug possession are unjust, the push to overhaul penal policies has been increasingly embraced by elected officials in some of the most conservative states in the country. And for a different reason: to save money.


The 1980s and 1990s saw a wave of stiff new sentencing laws, from mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession to California’s three-strikes law imposing an automatic life sentence for a third felony conviction. Partly as a result, the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Taxpayers are spending about $50 billion a year on state corrections systems — nearly twice as much, in inflation-adjusted terms, as expenditures in 1987, according to the Pew Center on the States.

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