State budget deficits are encouraging a rare coalition of reformers on both the left and the right of US politics to look for ways to slim down the largest prison system in the world.

A rightwing pressure group called Right on Crime has started to criticise policies that have led to a tripling in the prison population in the past 25 years. One per cent of US citizens live behind bars.

Grover Norquist, president of the small-government group Americans for Tax Reform, says his fellow conservatives went too far with their “tough on crime” policies in recent decades. Today, the man famous for saying government should be shrunk to the size where he could “drown it in the bathtub” is endorsing community service and rehabilitation as alternatives to incarceration.

The corrections system should emphasise “public safety, personal responsibility, work, restitution, community service, and treatment”, says a statement of principles signed by Mr Norquist and Edwin Meese, an attorney-general under Ronald Reagan.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and possible contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, argues that the growth in prison populations, the $68bn annual bill and the failure to prevent reoffending should “trouble every American”.

He goes on to advocate bedrock liberal ideas such as stronger parole services and drug rehabilitation programmes to reduce inmate numbers – a different note from the one he struck in his Contract with America in 1994, which boosted spending on prison construction. That heralds an intellectual shift away from the tough policies that have led to soaring prison numbers since the 1980s. Spending on corrections has tripled in the past quarter-century and now one in every 31 US citizens is either on parole, on probation or in jail.

Each prisoner costs about $29,000 a year, and that figure is set to rise because of the rapidly ageing prison population and healthcare costs.

State prison budgets have been rationalised and slimmed down since the financial crisis in 2008, leading to the first decline in state prison numbers in 40 years in 2009, but states are looking for more to plug the $83.9bn deficits they are set to face in fiscal 2011.

New York, Texas, Florida, and California are seeking to reduce spending next fiscal year, some by as much as $1bn. In New York, a task force is being set up to close prisons to save $180m over the next two years. The Texas budget plan includes closing 2,000 places in private prisons and more than 1,500 job losses.

Many are focusing their efforts and spending on programmes – normally associated with the left of US politics – which aim to deflect low-risk offenders from prison and into drug treatment or on to parole.

“Groups like Right on Crime are making it more acceptable for conservative policymakers to look at alternative policies to incarceration without feeling they are being ‘soft on crime’,” said Tony Fabelo, director of research at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Just under half of states – including Indiana, South Carolina, Arkansas and most recently Louisiana – have joined the Pew Center on the States, a public policy think-tank, in looking at ways to reduce costs by such progressive measures.

“There has been a sea change in thinking about sentencing and corrections over the last few years, but it’s not just because of the budget cuts,” said Adam Gelb, the director of the public safety performance project of the Pew Center on the States. “State leaders from both parties are realising that there are large numbers of lower-risk offenders who can be held accountable in ways that are more effective and a lot less expensive.”

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