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US prison inmates returning to society: How will they be received?

States, eager to save money and adopt alternatives to incarceration, release inmates in record numbers. Is society ready for the surge? 

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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."

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.

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