Two steps if taken, however, would almost halve our prison population. First, repeal state laws that now mandate the incarceration of drug offenders and develop instead many more public and private treatment centers to which nonviolent drug abusers can be referred. Second, stop using jails or prisons to house the mentally ill.

Tougher sentencing is being justified, in part, by the widespread belief that incarceration is the chief reason violent crime declined in U.S. cities during the 1990s. Rehabilitation is out; retribution is in. An ounce of prevention has given way to a pound of punishment. Furthermore, serious urban crime may be going down but the publicity about it in the mass media has not.

The largest single group in local jails comprises those incarcerated, directly or indirectly, because of alcohol, crack cocaine, marijuana, or heroin use. This situation testifies to the reality that not only is our national...
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