RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Later today, President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a prison, a federal institution in Oklahoma called El Reno. The president says too many Americans are behind bars. The prison population has ballooned in this country since the 1980s, and it's now the world's largest by far. On Tuesday, President Obama told the NAACP that there seems to be bipartisan support for fixing the problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: As Republican senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul has said - no, and to his credit, he's been consistent on this issue - imprisoning large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer.
MONTAGNE: To see where all this could lead, NPR's Martin Kaste takes a look at what's happened here in California which has begun shrinking its prison population.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: California's ahead of most states in this, in part because the courts ordered it to reduce prison overcrowding a few years ago, but also because the voters there now support lighter sentencing. Last fall, they approved Proposition 47, which reclassified a range of lower-level felonies down to misdemeanors. And that turned into a get-out-of-jail-free card for roughly 3,000 inmates.
LEROY ARRINGTON: It was a frenzy. Every day, five or six people were going home, and they had no idea they were leaving.
KASTE: That's Leroy Arrington describing the scene in his prison as the news spread.
ARRINGTON: The correctional officer would come to the bunk and tell them - said, look, you fell under Prop 47. Pack your stuff. You're leaving in the morning. So you got some time to call your people and tell them that you're coming home.
KASTE: He got out in February. He was serving two and a half years for stealing liquor. But under Prop 47, his crime was no longer a felony, so he got out six months early. And now he lives at a downtown LA rehabilitation program called the Amity Foundation. It's the kind of place where ex-cons listen to lectures about sticking to the straight and narrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Each person that's in this circle has to live up to their word - your word.
KASTE: And even though Arrington's been in and out of prison most of his life, he says this time it is going to be different.
ARRINGTON: Well, a year from now, I plan to be still out of prison and be clean and sober and have a place of my own. But I'm just taking it one day at a time. And each day that I'm not in prison is a plus for me.
KASTE: But is it a plus for society letting these prisoners out like this? The police aren't so sure. Some of them say they're already starting to see the consequences of Prop 47.
BILL BLOUNT: There has definitely been an uptick in burglary and theft from motor vehicle.
KASTE: Bill Blount is a detective in the LAPD's Hollenbeck station. He says car prowls are up about 30 percent in his area, and he thinks it's partly because more drug users are now staying out of jail.
BLOUNT: 'Cause that person needs to support his habit. It's kind of like a spiderweb effect, where you have the drug user in the middle and then this person is responsible for a multitude of other things.
KASTE: And it's not just the cops. Prosecutors are also worried about Prop 47.
ERIC SIDDALL: I don't think these current reforms are helping at all.
KASTE: Eric Siddall is a prosecutor in Compton. He's on the board of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which bitterly opposes Proposition 47. Enjoying the fresh air on his lunch break from the court house, he says this community used to be much more dangerous, and he has little doubt about what fixed things.
SIDDALL: People were sick and tired of what was going on in the '60s and the '70s, and they beefed up the penalties. And I think the penalties have kept people off the street and people - because of that, things were safer.
KASTE: And on the face of it, that makes sense. You incarcerate more people, they're not on the street to commit crime. But academics say it's not that simple. Steven Raphael is an economist at Berkeley who's an expert on the costs and benefits of America's big prison population.
STEVEN RAPHAEL: What drove the increase over the last three decades was sort of a series of sentencing reforms that were just kind of layered on top of one another, decade after decade, especially during the '80s and '90s. And I don't know that there was really much attention being paid to the effectiveness of this particular tool.
KASTE: He says the tougher sentences did work at first. When America first started putting away more people, crime went down. But that effect didn't last.
RAPHAEL: We have a fairly strong body of research that suggests that as the incarceration rate goes up, the effectiveness of incarceration as a crime-control tool goes down.
KASTE: In other words, diminishing returns. That, say, first million people that we put in prison - that cut crime a lot. But the second million - not so much. And researchers now say releasing some of those shouldn't cause a crime wave. Still, you can't blame people for being nervous. Statistics are one thing, but a personal brush with crime, that's another. And in fact, right after Prop 47 passed last fall, LA saw a spike in violent crime. It wasn't statistically meaningful - not yet, at least - but reformers worry about the conclusions that are now being drawn by police and prosecutors.
EUNISSES HERNANDEZ: They're going to say, we told you so. That's what they want to say, that we told you so, that this was going to happen.
KASTE: Eunisses Hernandez works at the Amity Foundation, the place where Leroy Arrington lives. She says the state just isn't providing enough of this kind of help for people who are leaving prison. And she says if you're going to reduce the prison population a lot, you have to do it right.
HERNANDEZ: If they release, like, half the population right now without services and with the re-entry systems that are currently available, I do believe that more crime will exist because people need to survive, and they're going to do what it takes to survive.
KASTE: And Hernandez thinks police and prosecutors are the biggest opponents of reform, but the truth is more complicated. Cops do complain about how Prop 47 reduced their leverage against repeat offenders who bring down neighborhoods. But many of them also say they don't believe that prison is the cure-all. Detective Bill Blount is one of those, despite the spike of car prowls that he's been dealing with.
BLOUNT: We can't throw everybody in prison. It's - we don't want to be a prison state. But there's got to be a balance somewhere in between. I don't know what that balance is.
KASTE: And on this point, the cop is in agreement with the academics because they say they really don't know either what that balancing point is - how much we can reduce incarceration before it starts pushing crime back up more than we can tolerate. They say the only real way to find that out is to try it. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Los Angeles.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.