For decades now, politicians— particularly those in conservative districts— have galloped into office with promises of being tougher on crime than the next guy. All this has gotten us is the world's highest incarceration rate. And it won't last forever. We can't afford it.

Recent years have brought a slow awakening to state governments that the financial cost of mass incarceration can quickly balloon to an impossible size. It's sad that it was not the human cost of mass incarceration that brought our elected leaders to this conclusion instead. But we have to take what we can get. California crammed so many people into its prisons that it's been locked in court battles about inhumane overcrowding for decades. In the past few years, state prison populations have finally begun to decline, for the first time in 40 years.

The insane "War on Drugs" drove generations of Americans into jail, and ruined millions upon millions of lives. The mass imprisonment of our own citizens during a time of general peace and prosperity will be looked upon as a black mark on our national conscience, when historians get around to tallying up its long-term consequences. The craven politicians who played on public fears and happily sent thousands of men and women to prison for decades simply to prove themselves "tough on crime" should, if the world is just, eventually be shamed and drummed out of office just as surely as former segregationists were when America finally woke up to racism's evils. That will take decades, though. In the meantime, it's enough that sanity is slowly returning to state law just for the sake of balancing budgets. When Republicans in Georgia, of all places, are pushing to decrease the state prison population, you know that this a trend that has legs. Today's WSJ story on the nationwide trend of conservative lawmakers easing back from aggressive incarceration policies notes: "New rules enacted over the past two legislative sessions are steering nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasizing rehabilitation over jail time, and lessening the penalties for many drug and property crimes."

Reserving prison mostly for violent crimes. Rehab before jail for drug and alcohol-related crimes. And bringing the sentencing for nonviolent crimes back into the realm of the reasonable. Three simple steps that, taken together, could keep tens or hundreds of thousands of people each year out of prison, save huge amounts of money, and make our justice system more closely resemble something concerned with "justice," rather than mindless, fearful, ignorant revenge. There are still plenty of things wrong with our prison system. The least we can do is to keep as many people out of it as we can.


[WSJ. Photo: