Republican-controlled states have embarked on efforts to reduce their burgeoning prison populations by taking a less strict stance on punishment for nonviolent crimes.
A total of 28 states have launched criminal penal code restructurings over the past five years, with 19 of those states controlled by Republican governors or legislatures, The Wall Street Journal reports
The South, which has imprisonment rates far above the national average, has seen some of the most ambitious efforts.
Georgia, led by GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, has implemented new rules keeping nonviolent criminals out of jail, stressing rehabilitation over jail time and easing punishment for drug and property crimes, the Journal noted.
Other GOP states making similar efforts include Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina, and South Dakota. The move represents a substantial change from the GOP's tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s.
"Motivations for the push are many," the Journal reported. "Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime."
Conservative Christians appear to be major supporters of the movement, emphasizing redemption.
"Libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state" also are playing a role, the Journal noted. "And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states, putting fewer people in jail."
Republicans also are seeking to moderate some of their policies to attract more voters.
"Criminal justice is the area where conservative thinking has most changed with the times," Eli Lehrer, a former GOP Senate staffer and conservative activist in Washington, told the Journal.
He called the state efforts on prisons "the most important social reform effort on the right since the rise of the pro-life movement in the 1970s."
The efforts of the GOP-led states has not gone unnoticed on the left. The initiatives, the Journal noted, "have drawn praise from groups that aren't often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union."
Democratic-led states are also making changes. But Adam Gelb, who directs the national criminal justice initiative for the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Journal that "on balance, it has been conservatives who have been out front."
The efforts seem to be paying off. The number of inmates in state prisons hit a high of 1.4 million around 2009, then dipped by about 25,000 in 2011, according to Justice Department statistics.
As for the decline in crime, the gun homicide rate dropped 49 percent in 2010 from a its peak in 1993, according to a report last month from the Pew Research Center
The rate for other violent crimes with a firearm — assaults, robberies and sex crimes — plunged 75 percent between 1993 and 2011.
But Americans apparently aren't getting the message. Survey results included in the Pew report show that 56 percent of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago, while only 12 percent think it's lower.
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