I was startled by these calculations for New Jersey, for example: Cutting in half the number of people sent to prison for drug crimes would reduce the prison population at the end of 2021 by only 3 percent. By contrast, cutting the effective sentences, or time actually served, for violent offenders by just 15 percent would reduce the number of inmates in 2021 by 7 percent — more than twice as much, but still hardly the revolution many reformers seek.
New Jersey could reduce its prison population by 25 percent by 2021. But to do it, it would have to take the politically fraught step of cutting in half the effective sentences for violent offenders.
In other words, the real debate over how to deal with criminals has hardly begun.
The low-hanging fruit on this issue seems to be in Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas most of all. But keep in mind another point: to the extent prison overcrowding eases, many judges will be giving longer sentences to many of the more violent offenders.