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Budget problems are forcing states and the federal government to re-think their approach to prisons. More than 2 million people are now incarcerated in the United States. That's expensive. Even conservatives who describe themselves as tough on crime are starting to call for the release of some inmates. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on how big numbers are driving corrections policy.

CARRIE JOHNSON: States spend about fifty billion dollars a year to house prisoners. And incarceration is the fastest growing expense in state budgets, except for Medicaid. Adam Gelb studies public safety at the Pew Center on the States. He says it's time to change direction, and he's got some numbers to make his case.

Mr. ADAM GELB (Pew Center on the States): It costs 23 times as much to have somebody behind the walls as it does in the community and I think that disparity is what's becoming compelling.

JOHNSON: Researchers have been collecting evidence for years about how to cut prison costs and reduce crime rates. Jim Burch at the U.S. Justice Department says politicians are finally starting to listen.

Mr. JIM BURCH (Justice Department): The economic situation that we're in is certainly nothing to celebrate. But at the same time it has served as an effective catalyst to get people to look at the facts and look at the data and to be more reasonable about the decisions that we're making.

JOHNSON: Decisions reflected in President Obama's 2012 budget. It includes a plan to save money by releasing well behaved inmates. And recently, Burch says, about a dozen states have reached out to the federal government for advice on how to overhaul their corrections policies. Experts say the key is to evaluate each prisoner and the risk he poses to the community, just like an insurance company would before writing a policy to cover someone's house or car.

Non violent criminals - people locked up on drug charges or for writing bad checks - may do much better out in the world than locked up in a cell next to more dangerous inmates. Here's Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia.

Representative FRANK WOLF (Republican, Virginia): You're finding people who are going to prison who have been sent into prison for a non-violent crime who come out very, very violent. So you've actually been counterproductive of what you're trying to do.

JOHNSON: Wolf's been joined by other prominent conservatives. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, and tax reform advocate Grover Norquist. They belong to a new group called Right on Crime. The group wants to see low level criminals released with more oversight in their local communities. Ideas they say have worked and saved money in Hawaii and Texas.

Pat Nolan has been working on those issues for 14 years. He's picking up a change in the atmosphere.

Mr. PAT NOLAN: All these conservatives now are saying, gee, you know, we need to rethink this huge spending on crime. We need to hold the bureaucracy accountable for results. It's beginning to change the whole political equation on crime.

Mr. JIM REAMS (Attorney): I'm Jim Reams, Rockingham County attorney here in New Hampshire and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

JOHNSON: Reams says his state dived head first into corrections reforms about six months ago. But he's got a warning: those reforms haven't worked out quite like the activists promised.

Mr. REAMS: The problems in New Hampshire have to do with the fact that they didn't fund any system for the maintenance and the monitoring of people in the community. They just started dumping them out with the predictable results.

JOHNSON: Predictable results. That means more crime, adds Jim Pasco of the national office of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Mr. JIM PASCO (Fraternal Order of Police): If something needs to be done, it needs to be done at the front end, before the crimes are committed. This is a sociological, a societal problem.

JOHNSON: Pasco says he worries about plans to cut police forces and release more criminals to save money.

Mr. PASCO: You put together reduced police strength on the street and more potentially violent criminals out there and it's a recipe for disaster.

JOHNSON: Pasco says his members are fanning out on Capitol Hill this week to share their concerns with lawmakers.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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