Americans famously overspent during the 1990s and early '00s. It's a familiar story: we mortgaged oversized homes to buy colossal TVs. But you may have heard less about another commodity we binged on: justice. Americans indulged in an enormous criminal-justice spending spree during the past 25 years, locking up more and more offenders (particularly for drug-related crimes) for longer and longer sentences. Total spending on incarceration rose from $39 per U.S. resident in 1982 to $210 per resident in 2006, according to the most recent figures from the Justice Department. We now spend $62 billion a year on corrections, and about 500 of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. As recently as the 1970s, the figure was only 100 in 100,000.
Owing to budget crises, many states are now having trouble affording to keep so many people locked up. Some states are cutting incarceration expenses by consolidating prisons; some are trying to slash prison-food and health-care costs. But real savings come only when you reduce prison populations, and so some states — including California, Colorado and Kentucky — have begun releasing inmates early. "The pressure in state legislatures all over the country is to bring down the populations, because we just can't afford the level of punishment that we've had the last 20 years," says Joan Petersilia, a criminologist at Stanford Law School. (Read "Experts: Street Crime Too Often Blamed on Gangs.")
Early-release programs can save states huge sums — $45 million a year in Colorado, for instance — but at what cost? One worry is that crime will rise if inmates are let go before completing their sentences. Republican Scott Suder, a Wisconsin assemblyman, crystallized a deeper concern, a moral one, when he told the Wisconsin State Journal in June that early release amounts to "rewarding bad behavior."
Criminologists say little research has been conducted to determine whether early-release initiatives lead to higher crime rates, although some prisoners who get out will undoubtedly commit crimes that they wouldn't have been able to commit if they were still behind bars. "There's no risk-free early-release program," says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. But early release doesn't simply mean opening the gates and letting inmates run for it. No state is freeing sex offenders, murderers or habitually violent criminals. Most inmates who are eligible for early release are those who were caught with relatively small amounts of drugs. And generally, early-release guidelines require that inmates be within six months of their official exit date.