"It’s a question of solving a problem before it eats us alive."

– James A. Gondles
Executive Director, American Correctional Association

Since the mid-1980s, policymakers across the country have turned increasingly to prison as the most effective crime prevention strategy. They have passed a series of tough measures—mandatory sentences, habitual offender acts, three strikes laws—that call for specific and lengthy prison stays. As a result, there are now more than 1.5 million people behind bars in the United States—up from 500,000 in 1980.

Because of this increase, policymakers have been taking a closer look at who, exactly, is in their prisons. They are finding that many inmates are first-time, nonviolent criminals, often low-level drug offenders. Others have been sent back to prison for committing "technical" violations of their parole or probation, such as missing a meeting with an officer or going to an "off-limits" bar. By the early 1990s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent offenders made up less than a third of all new admissions to state prisons.