03/10/2011 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prisons, Crime and Budgets: Time for a New Paradigm

The volume of tough talk has been ratcheted way up. Governors are talking tough on budget cuts. State workers are protesting threatened rollbacks of their rights and benefits. Ironically, the tough talk dial has been turned way down -- on crime. The hard-line tough-on-crime positions that were instrumental in bringing on the current fiscal woes in state after state are now being replaced by talk that is more nuanced, and even smart, on crime.

In many respects, the states have little choice. In New York, for example, it costs roughly $50,000-$55,000 a year to house each of the state's 56,000 prisoners, almost as much as a year's tuition at Harvard University. It's no wonder that spending on prisons has been a primary cause of many states' fiscal hemorrhaging.

Lock-'em-all-up sentencing and prison policies have resulted in criminal correction spending gobbling up 1 in every 15 state general fund dollars. Spending on prisons has risen by 674 percent in the last 25 years, outstripping the pace of budget expansion in essential areas like education and transportation.

Only Medicaid spending has grown faster. These tough-on-crime policies have led to mass incarceration of such magnitude that instead of being the home of the free, America has become the land of the imprisoned, with more people behind bars -- more than 2 million -- than any other nation in the world.

But with their fiscal futures against the wall, state lawmakers across the country are re-shifting priorities. And they are not stopping at timeworn cost-cutting measures like reducing staff, cutting programs and closing correctional facilities. As prison populations decline in some states and crime rates drop, legislators are turning to such good-sense reforms as alternatives to incarceration, more flexible sentencing guidelines, individual reentry plans, and so-called "earned time" measures that accelerate the release of prisoners who complete programs intended to improve their chances of having successful lives after they are released.

Want more evidence that this nation is pulling away from the unconscionable waste of money wrought by United States prison policies? Listen to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, whose Contract with America in the 1990s pushed for tougher crime laws. Today, Gingrich leads the Right on Crime Campaign, a national movement of conservative leaders who are spreading the message that it is time for states to make sensible criminal justice reforms and stop the revolving doors of recidivism.

It is time, too, for America to turn its attention to another price tag attached to its shortsighted criminal justice policies -- the incalculable human cost. The impact of these policies has reached far beyond prison walls and balance sheets, creating collateral damage in poor neighborhoods of color -- from whence a disproportionate percentage of prisoners come and to which they will return. These policies have conspired with long-held negative attitudes to create the building blocks of modern-day inequality.

The incarcerated -- sometimes when alternatives to incarceration would have been smarter and cheaper -- are crippled when they return home, as 700,000 do each year. The long and uncompromising shadow of their incarceration follows them as they search for necessities like housing and employment, making it hard to get a job even in a good economy. And while they've been away, their families have suffered and sometimes fallen apart; too many of their sons and daughters have become ensnared in the criminal justice system; the communities they call home have been bereft of husbands, wives, parents, tax-paying citizens, potential leaders.

In short, poor neighborhoods have become poorer, in so many ways. And yet, the long shadow of prison continues to so dramatically obscure the humanity of those who have spent time behind walls that the kind of support they need in order to realize their plans of reintegrating into society and building meaningful lives is tantamount to wishful thinking.

Members of this huge population are largely forgotten by society. When society considers them at all, it is as the faceless statistics or frightening stereotypes. They are defined solely by their mistakes and bad choices. But if this nation doesn't develop smart policies for them, there will be another high price to pay.

Sheila R. Rule spent more than 30 years as a journalist at The New York Times. After retiring, she founded Resilience Multimedia to present fairer images of the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their loved ones.