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'Tough on crime' lawmakers waking up to new, austere reality

From sea to shining sea, budget problems are plaguing states struggling to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Lawmakers who had for years collected votes for being tough on crime are now backtracking and looking for ways to cut prison costs by letting inmates out earlier.

South Carolina is letting people convicted of illegal drug sales out early, along with burglars and writers of bad checks in an effort to slash prison rolls by eight percent. Michigan has closed 20 corrections centers and cut spending by seven percent.

Oklahoma is working on plans to divert thousands of nonviolent offenders away from prisons while also accelerating the early releases of others.

Georgia, California, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon and Wisconsin are also cutting or trying to cut prison spending by releasing prisoners early.

Even Texas, long known for its enormous prison system and tough-on-crime approach has backtracked. Its prison system is under maximum capacity for the first time in years.

Adam Gelb, a policy expert with the Pew Center on States, says "there has been a dramatic shift" among lawmakers.

"The old question was simply, how do I demonstrate that I'm tough on crime?" he said. Now legislators are forced to ask "a much better question: How do I get taxpayers a better public safety return on their corrections dollars?"

An Oklahoma state senator admitted that "truthfully, it's popular to be tough on crime." But when forced by budget problems to reexamine who is incarcerated and why, he came to the realization that the crime problem is not "exactly like [I] thought."

And so politicians across the country are being weaned from a tried and true method of getting votes: making punishments tougher and prison sentences longer. They're realizing that simply locking people up and throwing away the key is too heavy of a price for society to pay.

Resource: Chicago Tribune: "GOP lawmakers paying price for tough-on-crime laws": February 7, 2011