Right, so we Americans incarcerate too many people for too stupid of reasons, and at this point the term "correctional facility" is criminally inaccurate. We need to change this dynamic for so many different reasons, and there are so many different aspects of this situation that needs changing. Badly. (Hint: if you want to read more on the broader issues, check out "The New Jim Crow." Very readable and well done.)
The problem is, people pushing to change this system are usually coming at this from at least two perspectives, and I see this leading to some problems. First there are the folks who think the system just isn't just to criminals, or even that effective at protecting future victims. They have a point IMO: drug laws are biased, imposing heavier penalties for the forms of drugs used in poor areas, and judges and juries are biased, too - studies have shown that black and Hispanic defendants receive harsher sentences than whites. (I'll try to dig out some links when I get home.) Then there are people who are more economically driven. There's a saying down in Pennsylvania, that it's cheaper to go to Penn State than the state pen. State budgets are cut, and court and jail costs are really expensive.
I think there's some overlap here. Everyone wants their tax dollars to be well spent, and if you think jail doesn't actually help your community, of course you're going to think that's not an efficient use of the money. But I think there are some people that are predominantly motivated by justice concerns with maybe money being a supporting reason, and then there are people who aren't keen to lock someone up unfairly but are really more driven by money concerns.
And that's a problem because there are good ways to cut money and bad ways. An example: parole and probation, if it's well supervised, isn't free. It's cheaper than jail, but if you think there are better use for your tax dollars than on criminals, you may want to cut even that spending. And some states do that by privatizing probation, particularly when someone has only a fine to pay like for a misdemeanor. The upshot is you end up owing not just your dine but administrative costs that in the past would have been tax-covered. Not to mention carried out by a city employee who at least in theory had more accountability. If nothing else it incentivizes keeping people in the system.
I'm not blind to the incentive to cut costs. I want criminal justice that prevents crime and helps the whole communities effected by it, not that puts a bandage over a festering wound. So on the surface I was really encouraged when I heard a lot of Republican state governors pushing for alternates to jail. The impulse is good. But what I found as I read more about it was a willingness to cut *necessary* services and pass on the cost to the convicted. And that's... understandable, in this economy, but definitely not what was worrying me. Cutting costs is good if done well, but cutting it at the expense of actual rehabilitation is shortsighted and unfair.
For me at least this issue seems like gay marriage: you've got different people pushing for it, some because they're okay with homosexuality but others just didn't think the government should be regulating love (they didn't approve if asked but tended to think it wasn't there business, certainly not the government's). Which worked out fine when we were talking about legal recognition of marriage but cut the other way when it looked like gay marriage would mean individuals and businesses would have to honor those marriages, that the govt would take away their ability to object. I don't agree with this read on businesses being forced to cater to gay marriages, but if you did you can see how it would change things if you were coming at this from a pro-LGBT perspective or a liberty perspective. The devil's in the details here, and so too with prison reform. You've got people who seem in agreement on the surface, bit they're driven by different factors so of course that's going to have an impact.
Anyway. That's all the thinly thoughts I have for today. The issue does matter, though, and it's been in my thoughts with all the post-Ferguson discussions going on.