After decades of rapid growth, the number of prison inmates in the US tailed off last year increasing by a mere 1 percent, the slowest rate since 1972.
That still leaves 2.1 million people in prisons and jails. But experts feel the slowing rate may at least indicate the nation has entered a time of stable, rather than ballooning, prison populations.
This is a positive trend, especially if, as seems likely, it reflects some serious rethinking of policies that have generated much of the prison boom.
Those policies included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. A number of states have altered their laws requiring such sentences in order to cut down on the number of inmates. California's voter-approved law mandating drug treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders is perhaps the most radical such step.
In many states, the drive to trim budgets at a time of sharply declining tax revenues is the driving force behind such changes, rather than penal reform. Prisons are a major drain on state general funds.
Cost-cutting may also explain liberalized parole policies in some states. Even states known for being tough on crime, like Texas, have increased the use of parole for inmates considered nonviolent or rehabilitated.
But such inclinations can still be thwarted by ingrained political attitudes. Consider the case of Californian David Ramos, who has served 21 years of a 26-year-to-life sentence for dropping off a murderer at the scene of the crime.
Mr. Ramos has been an exemplary prisoner, earning a college degree while behind bars, mastering trades, and teaching more than 1,000 fellow inmates how to read. California's parole board voted to release him earlier this year. But Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who has carefully cultivated a tough-on-crime image, recently vetoed its decision.
Only three states give their governors veto power over paroles. It's a formula for politicizing the process, and California, Oklahoma, and Maryland should reconsider.
America's ongoing problems with crime, and politicians' instinct to exploit the issue, may tend to keep prison populations high in the immediate future. But reasonable steps, like rolling back mandatory sentences and increased use of parole or probation for low-risk prisoners, should help keep the growth rate of those populations under control.